Saudi Arabia's New Best Friend: China?

September 2, 2015 Topic: Diplomacy Region: AsiaMiddle East Tags: Saudi ArabiaChinaTrade

Saudi Arabia's New Best Friend: China?

Beijing's commitment to strengthening its relations with Riyadh is certain. Should Washington be worried?

Nuclear Energy

Well before the United States and the rest of the P5+1 countries had concluded their agreement with Iran over its nuclear activities, the Saudis had made it clear that they are committed to finding alternative sources of energy to meet their rising domestic energy needs. In addition to allocating billions towards the development of solar energy, Saudi Arabia has allocated an additional $80 billion for the development of as many as sixteen nuclear reactors, with plans for the first of them to come on line by 2022. While some former senior Saudi royals have suggested that Saudi Arabia will likely want to have the same level of nuclear capability that Iran is allowed under the agreement, leading some observers to assume that the quest for nuclear energy is simply about keeping pace with Iran, Saudis are among the highest consumers of both electricity and water in the world and nuclear plants are well suited for generating electricity and powering desalination plants.

Divergence On Syria

While China doesn’t not come with the political baggage of the United States, which is seen as not only the main benefactor of Israel, but is also largely blamed for the ongoing violence in Iraq, China’s policies towards Syria have cost it some political capital, although not to the same extent as Russia or Iran. Its perceived support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria has irked the Saudis and others who blame Assad for the rise of ISIS and the carnage that has cost 250,000 people their lives. However, a Chinese delegation composed of former officials, academics and business leaders that attended a Saudi-Chinese forum in Riyadh in 2012 denied that China was committed to Bashar al-Assad, and argued that its actions at the UNSC were predicated mostly on safeguarding Syria’s sovereignty.

Observers of China’s foreign policy towards the Middle East have criticized it for not showing enough initiative or political will to help resolve any of the region’s myriad conflicts. The Saudis—and perhaps others—would like China to play a bigger role in the region and not just in the economic sphere. While it remains to be seen whether China is willing to abandon its extreme caution, its commitment to strengthening its relations with Saudi Arabia should not be questioned, and the Saudis could not be more pleased.

Fahad Nazer is a Senior Political Analyst at JTG Inc.​ and a former political analyst at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, CNNForeign PolicyYaleglobal Online and Al Monitor, among others. His writing was also included in The Kingdom: Saudi Arabia and the Challenge of the 21st Century.