With Saudi deals, the US and China compete for influence in the Middle East

WASHINGTON (AP) — Within days, Saudi Arabia has signed blockbuster deals with the world’s two leading powers — China and the United States.

Riyadh signed a China-facilitated deal to restore diplomatic ties with its nemesis Iran, then announced a massive contract to buy commercial aircraft from the American manufacturer Boeing.

The two announcements sparked speculation that the Saudis were establishing their marker as a dominant economic and geopolitical force with the flexibility to play off Beijing and Washington. They also gave China an unknown leadership role in Middle Eastern politics. And they raised questions about whether the relationship between the US and Saudis – frosty for much of President Joe Biden’s first two years term — has reached a détente.

But as the Biden administration takes stock of the moment, officials are pushing back against the idea that the developments amount to a shift in the dynamics of US-China competition. in the Middle East.

The White House scoffs at the idea that the big plane deal represents a significant change in the status of the government’s relations with Riyadh after Biden’s fierce criticism early in his presidency of the Saudis’ record on human rights and on the move of the Saudi Arabian-led oil cartel OPEC+. to reduce production last year.

“We look forward to ensuring that this strategic partnership truly supports our national security interests there in the region and around the world in every way possible,” said White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. The United States. Saudi relationship. He was speaking after Boeing announced this week that the Saudis would buy up to 121 planes.

But China’s involvement in facilitating a resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the big Boeing contract — a contract the White House says it advocated for — have put a new twist on Biden’s roller-coaster relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

As a candidate for the White House, Biden vowed that Saudi rulers under his watch would pay a “price” for the 2018 murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. a critic of the kingdom’s leadership. More recently, after the OPEC+ oil cartel announced cuts in production in October, Biden vowed “consequences” for an action that the government said helped Russia.

Now Washington and Riyadh seem to be moving forward, and at the moment China is at least engaging in more assertive diplomacy in the Middle East.

Saudi officials updated US on status of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia on resuming diplomatic relations since they began nearly two years ago, according to the White House. Significant progress was made in several rounds of previous talks hosted by Iraq and Oman, long before the deal was announced in China at the country’s ceremonial National People’s Congress last week.

Unlike China, the US has no diplomatic relations with Iran and was not a party to the talks.

The Iran-Saudi relationship has traditionally been fraught and overshadowed by a sectarian divide and fierce competition in the region. Diplomatic relations were severed in 2016 after Saudi Arabia executed prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Protesters in Tehran stormed the Saudi embassy and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed “divine vengeance” for the execution of al-Nimr.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said earlier this week that China was “rowing in the same direction” with its work to quell tensions between Gulf Arab states that have waged proxy wars in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq for years. .

“This is something that we think is positive because it promotes what the United States has been promoting in the region, which is de-escalation, a reduction in tensions,” Sullivan said.

But private White House officials are skeptical of China’s ability and desire to play a role in resolving some of the region’s most difficult crises, including Yemen’s long, disastrous proxy war.

The Houthis, allied to Iran, seized Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in 2014, forcing the internationally recognized government into exile in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi Arabian-led coalition armed with US weapons and intelligence entered the war in 2015 on the side of Yemen’s government-in-exile.

Years of inconclusive fighting unleashed a humanitarian disaster, pushing the Arab world’s poorest nation to the brink of famine. In all, the war killed more than 150,000 people, including more than 14,500 civilians, according to The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

A six-month ceasefire, the longest in the Yemen conflict, expired in October, but finding a permanent peace is one of the government’s top priorities in the Middle East. US Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking is visiting Saudi Arabia and Oman this week to try to build on the UN-brokered ceasefire that the State Department says has brought some calm to the world in recent months. Yemen has brought.

Beijing entered talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia at a time when the fruit was already “ripening on the vine,” according to one of six senior administration officials who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss White House private deliberations. to discuss. . The Iran-Saudi announcement coincided with Chinese leader Xi Jinping being awarded a third five-year term as the country’s president.

The official added that if China can play a “strengthening role” in ending hostilities in Yemen, the government would see it as a good thing. But both the White House and Saudi officials remain deeply skeptical of Iran’s intentions in the war in Yemen or, more broadly, as a stabilizing force in the region.

To date, China, which has a seat on the UN Security Council, has shown little interest in the conflict in Yemen, Syria or the Israeli-Palestinian situation, according to government officials. Yet this week Xi called on China to play a greater role in managing global affairs after Beijing staged a diplomatic coup with the Iran-Saudi deal.

“It has added a positive element to the peace, stability, solidarity and cooperation landscape of the region,” China’s Deputy UN Ambassador Geng Shuang told the UN Security Council on Wednesday. “We hope it can also create favorable conditions to improve the situation in Yemen.”

The government officials said Beijing has shown modest interest in reviving the seven-party deal with Iran – of which it is a signatory – from which President Donald Trump withdrew the US in 2018. The Biden administration pushed efforts to revive the nuclear deal last fall after protests erupted in Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody for allegedly violating Iran’s strict dress code for women.

To be sure, China – a major customer of both Iranian and Saudi oil – has been steadily increasing its regional political clout. Xi traveled to Riyadh in December and received Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Beijing last month.

But Miles Yu, director of the Hudson Institute’s China Center, said Xi’s call to become a more active player on the international scene would force Beijing to drastically change its approach.

“China’s diplomatic initiatives are based on one thing: money,” said Yu, who served as China policy adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during the Trump administration. ‘They made friends in Africa and Asia, but mostly it was money. These types of transactional transactions do not forge a lasting friendship.”

Not every step China takes to go deeper with the Middle East necessarily hurts the United States, noted Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat and frequent critic of Saudi Arabia.

“But it’s probably true that China would have to shoulder some of the cost of securing the oil that … frankly is probably more important to them in the long run than it is to the United States,” Murphy said. “I think China has benefited from being a free rider on US security investments in the region for a long time.”

The White House is not overly concerned about the Saudis’ refocusing on China at this point, for several reasons, including the fact that the Saudis’ entire defense system is based on US weapons and components, government officials said. The officials added that it would take the Saudis at least a decade to move from US weapons systems to Russian or Chinese-oriented systems.

Saudi Arabia’s reliance on U.S.-made weapons systems and the U.S. military and commercial presence in the kingdom — home to some 70,000 Americans — have played a large role in the relationship that has endured difficult moments over the years, he said. Les Janka, a former president of Raytheon Arabian Systems Co. who has lived in the kingdom for many years.

It would take “an incredible amount of activity to decommission given the reliance on US weapons, US technology, US training, everything that comes with it,” Janka said.


United Nations Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report.

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