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Chinese ‘Incursions’ In Middle East Flusters Washington; US Could Recalibrate Its Ties With Saudi Arabia To Block Beijing

US Secretary of State Blinken was on a two-day visit to Saudi Arabia, the second top diplomat to visit the kingdom within a month.

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The flurry of visits, it appears, is the outcome of the deepening influence of China in the Middle East after the Iran-Saudi rapprochement brokered by China. The timing of Blinken’s visit is interesting.

Simultaneous with his visit, Iran was opening its embassy in Riyadh. Blinken’s visit (6-8 June) came just ahead of a two-day Arab-China Business Conference in Riyadh.

Saudi For Independent Policy

The US feels that Saudi Arabia is becoming central and desires to be an independent player on some of the strategic issues. Among these can be listed oil prices, the Iranian nuclear issue, the Arab-Israel détente, and most importantly, the growing presence and influence of China in the Middle East.

But analysts say some issues are of more significance than we may think. The World of 8 June reported that Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said after meeting with the visiting US Secretary of State that while the kingdom would welcome US aid in building its civilian nuclear program, “there are others that are bidding.”

Recent news reports say that Saudi Arabia is asking for US aid in building its nuclear program in exchange for establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. Normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab countries, known as the Abraham Accords, remains an American priority.

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President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in July last year failed to produce the desired result that would have met America’s expectations — increasing oil production. With that, Saudi Arabia began to pursue a more independent policy. The oil-rich kingdom seeks to transform itself into a global player untethered from Washington.

The kingdom has embarked on a massive economic and social transformation aimed at reducing its independence on oil and attracting commerce, investment, and tourism. The Saudi Crown Prince often speaks of developing an alternative source of energy.

Social reforms do not escape the sight of the ruler. For example, a ban on women driving has been lifted, the stranglehold of religious policy has become loose, concerts are hosted, and visiting celebrities are entertained with cultural programs. Previously, these freedoms were unthinkable.

The success of the Iran-Saudi rapprochement has encouraged the Saudis to launch wide-ranging diplomatic efforts to find an end to the war in Yemen, resolve differences with Qatar, and help a restoration of Syria’s President Bashar’s return to the Arab League after a long boycott of 12 years.

We said at the outset that Saudis are resisting US pressure to bring down oil prices because, in the words of the columnist of The World,” they (Saudis) seek revenues to fund what they refer to as “giga-project,” including a $500 billion futuristic city under construction on the Red Sea.

On the diplomatic level, Saudi Arabia has been pandering to realpolitik which makes space for a multipolar world. Saudi first is the crux of the Crown Prince’s policy. Saudis have improved relations with countries not friendly to Washington. Spat with Canada is resolved, and Ukrainian President Zelensky was invited to address the Arab League.

US’ Initiatives

Experts on the US-Saudi relationship believe that Saudi-Iran diplomatic ties made the US realize it should become more active in the region, especially with Riyadh.

We look at this argument from a different angle. Saudi-US relations had begun to sour much before Joe Biden came to power. President Trump also had difficulty handling the Crown Prince.

Two factors are notable in this context. The first is that the Arab leaders in the Middle East have not been comfortable with Saudi Arabia going by the diktat of Washington regarding its foreign policy. And the second is that Saudi is for peace with Israel, but the two-nation theory has to be given the merit it deserves.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan visited Riyadh in early May and proposed a massive infrastructure plan to connect Gulf and Arab states with India through a network of ports and railways covering America’s partners in the Middle East.

The columnist of South China Morning Post of 11 June disclosed that the ambitious proposal, which came out of the discussions by the I2U2 Group — a coalition of the US, the United Arab Emirates, India, and Israel set up in 2021 –- has been likened to China’s belt and road strategy and widely interpreted as a US move to counter China’s influence in the region.

President Biden fist bumps with Saudi King Prince Mohammed Bin Salman
File Image: Joe Bien with Mohammad Bin Salman

It is not safe to say that the disclosure of the South China Morning Post will have the potential of matching China’s B&R Initiative.

The I2U2 will cater to the territorially limited region in comparison to the B&R Initiative, though commercially, it is more viable.

Moreover, China is trying to develop a more economic-focused and less confrontational approach which sits well with its Middle East allies.

Amusingly, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were invited to the meeting with Sullivan but have so far remained silent on the US plan. It is also said that very little popularity of the US plan and that its source of finance is uncertain.

Knowledgeable circles in the Biden administration opine that the mechanism stated above emanates from the thinking that through establishing this kind of small and multilateral mechanisms in various regions — the Asia Pacific, the Indo-Pacific, and the Middle East, — China’s influence in all aspects of the Middle East can be curbed.

Notwithstanding Saudi Arabia’s good intentions of doing what goes in the interests of the Arabs in general and those of the kingdom in particular, Crown Prince Salman has to understand that the interaction of the kingdom with the Western world and especially the US needs to be handled with utmost care so that it does not become a buffer between the two giants.

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