Saudi-Chinese relations have long been plagued with skepticism, and the first formal meetings between the two occurred only in 1990 when the first official diplomatic ties were established. Prior to this day, despite the PRC’s desire to develop connections and embrace Saudi Arabian policies, Saudi Arabia refused to acknowledge the PRC as a country, preferring to accept Taiwanese leadership as the sole legitimate Chinese government.

The first ROC (Republic of China, alias Taiwan) Consulate in Jeddah opened on October 26, 1939, marking the commencement of ROC–KSA links barely seven years after the establishment of the KSA, and their first treaty was signed on November 15, 1946. The Treaty of Amity approved seven articles aimed at governing bilateral relations by maintaining and strengthening the relationship between the two countries, ensuring peace and amity between both governments and their people, and providing these governments and people with broader relations, especially in economic aspects.

Nevertheless, the ROC’s relations with Middle Eastern countries deteriorated significantly after the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and their bilateral relations ‚had already gone from bad to worse…‘ soon after domestic political turmoil and regional security in Saudi Arabia hampered plans to establish embassies. The PRC attempted to capitalize on such an opportunity, and it wasn’t until 1969 that the ROC began to restore relations with the Gulf States and sought to develop moderate ties.

During this period, the PRC took an active interest in liberation efforts and adopted a dual strategy on a regional and global scale. On the regional scene, mainland China began to assist governments and movements with an anti-Western agenda, particularly the people’s armed uprisings in Palestine and Dhufar; yet, globally, it abandoned its Soviet ally and moved to restore relations with Washington throughout the 1970s.

Since the Soviet Union was viewed as China’s principal foe and a threat to national security, the US has agreed to improve relations with Beijing while reducing its military presence in Southeast Asia. Such cooperation resulted in the PRC being recognized as a country and admitted to the UN, paving the advent of a new era of diplomatic ties with both the US and the Middle East. In this regard, while the PRC has always been a loyal supporter of the Palestinian cause and the Arab struggle against Israeli occupation, it has also succeeded in becoming a „natural member of the Third World,“ and therefore a „model“ that resists the superpowers‘ control.

As a result of this turnaround, Saudi Arabia’s initial behavior appears to have substantially evolved in recent years, to the point where they are now close and strategic partners, with the two nations‘ relationship becoming significantly closer. To give you an indication, according to a 2015 public opinion poll, 61.3 percent of Saudis viewed China favorably, with 34.2 percent strongly favorably and only 28.5 percent negatively. Given this context, it appears clear that China and Saudi Arabia both negotiated extensively to achieve their current partnership status, and the two countries have been able to increase cooperation in the energy and financial sectors, promote the One Belt, One Road Initiative, and sign numerous deals in a variety of fields in the last 30 years.

The same King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman hinted that China may expand its diplomatic footprint in the Middle East, saying that „Saudi Arabia is willing to collaborate hard with China to achieve global and regional peace, security, and prosperity.“ But what makes Saudi Arabia so eager to work with China? What significance does this Sino-Saudi relationship play in the present geopolitical balance reached by Saudi Arabia and the United States? And, furthermore, to what degree can Saudi Arabia legitimately collaborate with China to develop the Belt and Road Initiative without prompting US intervention?

PRC and KSA are maintaining now a very diverse collaboration extending from cultural, economic, commercial, and technological to agricultural sectors; and by the mid-1980s, informal Sino-Saudi relations were actively fostered in other strategic fields as well. Specifically, religiously, the PRC and KSA resumed allowing Chinese Muslims to perform Hajj (pilgrimages) to Makkah at the end of the 1970s; economically, they began exchanging goods at the beginning of the 1980s; and militarily, China provided Saudi Arabia with long-range missiles in the second half of the 1980s.

As a result, in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War’s end, the relationships between the PRC and the KSA became deeper and more stable, at the expense of those with the ROC; and, as a result, the economy began to drive a significant portion of the links between the two countries leaders, government officials, and business communities, and various elements of complex mutual reliance emerged. From then on, the two countries‘ agendas widened, and economic issues dominated the mutual inter-state strategy till the current day.


In this respect, it is critical to note that the importance of military strength in bilateral ties was negligible because Saudi Arabia did not want to replace its previous strategic defense ally, the United States, and China has never shown any interest in recruiting military allies in the Middle East region. By building on the historical framework established thus far, a critical assessment of how Sino-Saudi connections coexist with US-Saudi collaboration should now be presented. According to this viewpoint, the US-Saudi partnership is one of America’s most significant, long-standing, and complex bilateral ties in the Middle East. It has been tested by a variety of issues, including energy policy, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and confrontation with Iraq, and both sides have widely critiqued and reevaluated their relationship, notably after September 11, 2001.

To offer context for US-Saudi relations, despite the kingdom’s recognition in 1931, no American official visited in a formal role until 1940, when some early discussions laid the groundwork for most of what followed. According to this perspective, US-Saudi relations are defined by two types of interaction: the first is mostly concerned with the economic trade of oil, while the second is primarily concerned with a defensive strategic connection. As a result, similar to the Chinese experience, the kingdom’s unrivaled oil riches served as the major foundations of their relationship, and it was from this that, following WWII’s conclusion, the second section of US-Saudi ties, the defensive alliance, began to expand.

This move toward the second phase happened when the US asked permission to build a new airfield near the Hasa oilfields in Dhahran to facilitate the deployment of troops and equipment into the Burma theater. However, such an event was not without complications, and it established an ambiguous pattern: on the one hand, a high American profile might deter a potential aggressor in difficult times; on the other hand, a high American profile offered a standing provocation to the ultra-conservative religious authorities, or ulama, and handed a powerful propaganda tool to both external and internal foes.

As a consequence of such elements, Saudi authorities have alternated between developing tighter security contacts and limiting them when they believed it was too risky, and numerous events in the Middle Eastern geopolitical context have put their partnerships to the test.

The most pressing issues of the 1970s stemmed from America’s relationship with Israel, which evolved from generalized moral support in the 1940s to an arms supply relationship in the mid-1960s before becoming a de facto anti-Soviet alliance in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Beyond the rhetorical level, the Saudis were inclined and typically able to dismiss the problem, and it had little influence on relations with Washington. However, as the Arab-Israeli conflict polarized the whole region, significant pressure was applied on America’s allies.

Such crisis, on the one side, threatened the regime’s legitimacy, but as previously stated, they also provided opportunities for it to assert its independence from Western powers (via publicly distancing the regime from US affairs), whereas, on the other, Americans had no upside; they were a „recurring bad dream,“ culminating most nightmarishly in the oil embargo of 1973-1974.

In an interview with NBC, the same Saudi king declared that “America’s complete support for Zionism and against the Arabs makes it extremely difficult for us to continue to supply the United States with oil, or even to remain friends with the United States”, and on October 15, 1973, during an OPEC meeting in Kuwait City, the exporters’ delegation proclaimed a unilateral 70% hike. Yamani told his colleagues, “This is a moment for which I have been waiting a long time. The moment has come. We are masters of our own commodity.”

Such embargo persisted until March 18, 1974, when a protracted sequence of threats and inducements culminated in the Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement. This occurrence demonstrated the limitations of the relationship on both sides: the US recognized the possibility for another calamity, while the Saudis refrained from displaying the oil weapons again, evidently concerned about the long-term effects on the market for oil.

Saudi-American ties returned stable until the 1990s, when the ongoing presence of American and British military at Saudi bases prompted a response from Muslim terrorist organizations. Saudi Arabia was not closely involved in the early stages of America’s pursuit of international terrorists in the Middle East, and when the Americans succeeded in convincing Sudan’s government to expel a violent Saudi dissident, Usama bin Ladin, from its territory in 1996, Riyadh declined to request his extradition, and several people opposed both the royal family and the US on the grounds that the foreign, non-Muslim military presence defiled holy soil.

In retrospect, the two sides‘ distrust and lack of collaboration may have cost them dearly. In the lack of a Saudi extradition request, bin Ladin was free to move unmolested to Afghanistan, where the US and Saudi Arabia had backed the anti-Soviet mujahidin insurgency in the 1980s, and where he had gotten his start as a sponsor of mujahid activity.

Bin Ladin reappeared only on September 11, 2001, when a group of 19 Arabs, including 15 Saudis, carried out devastating terrorist attacks on the United States, rearranging regional affairs and dealing a severe blow to US-Saudi ties. The instant reaction of huge sectors of the Saudi and other Arab publics included spontaneous celebrations and, suddenly on the defensive, the Saudis rushed quickly to stabilize oil prices and assist the US in preparing to continue its war into Afghan soil.

At the same time, the Saudis were unable to ignore the previous years‘ heightened tensions and resentment, and they put impediments in the way of complete collaboration against the Taliban and al-Qa’ida. They limited the extent and visibility of the American war effort on Saudi land from the start, and tales of problems in getting Saudi cooperation against al-Qa’ida on the finance front continued to emerge in the press.

In the United States, resentment of the monarchy quickly reached levels not seen since the 1973-1974 oil crisis. A wave of harshly critical commentary from journalists, commentators, and Congressmen highlighted the limits of Saudi cooperation, and blamed the rise of al-Qa’ida as a consequence of Saudi (and Egyptian) decisions to encourage virulent anti-American rhetoric in place of dissent and to export troublemakers to ensure internal stability.

Americans‘ anger was responded with Saudi rage over American backing for Israel, military activity in Afghanistan, and the incarceration of Arab detainees, allegedly including a substantial number of Saudis, at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba. This sentiment got stronger during Bush’s January State of the Union speech, in which he attacked an „axis of evil“ that included two neighboring governments, Iraq and Iran, as well as his stress on the importance of removing Iraq’s regime. For several years after that, the barely repressed fury remained the dominant paradigm of US-Saudi relations.


In this sense, today, even though the Saudi Arabia-USA partnership has returned to being the fundamental pillar of Saudi Arabia’s military and foreign affairs, the 2001 rupture remains unresolved, and popular animosity in both states demonstrated a lack of common principles. Indeed, both the Obama and Trump administrations were tense, as their interests seemed to diverge, and western policies in the Middle East, such as the invasion of Iraq, responses to the 2011 Arab uprisings, the war in Syria, and negotiations with Iran leading up to the JCPOA, were heavily opposed by Saudi officials.

Such a gap between the two governments started being filled by the Chinese influence in the region. China, in particular, began to be viewed as an emergent great power with different values-based aspirations than the US, and the so-called „China Model“ of economic growth without political reform appeared to be appealing to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Specifically, Chinese involvement in the Middle East is based on the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states, and this Chinese decoupling of internal politics and diplomatic relations is more than welcomed by Saudi Arabia’s leaders. When asked if China is a better friend than the US, the former Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the US responded, „Not necessarily a better friend, but a less complicated friend.“

Due to such considerations, numerous experts began to argue that Saudi Arabia has adopted a „Look East“ policy and that China has become one of the most significant strategic markets for Saudi oil exports. Specifically, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Saudi Arabia has sought to rebalance its relations with the world’s main powers, and consequently, the Saudis have pursued a „hedging strategy“ toward the US, forging a more robust connection with Asian countries, particularly China.

In this sense, even though authors agree in saying that current Sino-Saudi ties do not have the same significant ramifications as US-Saudi relations, nor do they represent a complete shift of Saudi relations from the West to Asia, the Saudi- Sino relations have been a matter of great concern for the geopolitical balance in the region, and the US is more than likely expected to give a response in the near future.

To put it another way, according to the experts, current Beijing-Riyadh relations are nothing more than a diversification of Saudi relations with foreign countries and customers, whereas the US energy strategy with Middle Eastern oil producing nations has created more direct and closer links between economic and security interests. However, even though today’s indicators of national strength show that China „…continues to trail significantly behind the United States,“ that Saudi Arabia is maintaining a tighter relationship with its western armaments supplier, and that „…China has done nothing to…divert Saudi Arabia off this course,“ the Sino-Saudi relationship is expected to grow in the coming years, and the US cannot ignore this fact any longer.

Here, the US, worried to lose its grip on the Middle Eastern region, and China, interested in promoting an even stronger relationship with Saudi Arabia, may potentially reshape the Middle Eastern and world’s political balance.


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Written by Matteo Boccia