China and Saudi Arabia are getting closer. Should the US be worried?

Nadeen Ebrahim

(Abu Dhabi, UAE(CNN — 

Saudi Arabia this week moved closer to joining a China-led Asian security and economic bloc, having been granted the status of a dialogue partner in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as it expands its global outreach.

A club of mostly ex-Soviet states, the SCO includes Russia and China, as well as other major economic players such as India and Pakistan. The kingdom could eventually be granted full membership.

China’s growing role in the Middle East of late has alarmed Washington. This month alone, Beijing mediated a landmark agreement between archfoes Iran and Saudi Arabia that could help significantly ease Middle East tensions. Saudi Arabia also significantly strengthened its energy ties with China by announcing on Monday a $3.6 billion deal to buy 10% of China’s Rongsheng Petrochemical, which would see it supply 480,000 barrels per day of crude oil to the company.

Analysts say that as the US’ rivalry with China and Russia intensifies in an increasingly polarized world, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations are choosing to diversify their global partnerships. But while states like Saudi Arabia may be getting closer to China, Beijing is far from becoming a US rival in the region, they say.

“The traditional monogamous relationship with the US is now over,” said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst and writer. “And we have gone into a more open relationship; strong with the US but equally strong with China, India, (the) UK, France and others.”

That polarization is the reason different parties “bring different forms of influence to the table,” he told CNN. “The smart thing for the kingdom is to put in place a portfolio of strategic relations that all contribute to its security and prosperity in different ways.”

The kingdom’s ambassador to the United States, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, told CNN’s Becky Anderson in October that a review of the US-Saudi relationship was “a positive thing.”

“This kingdom is not the kingdom it was five years ago, it’s not the kingdom it was 10 years ago. So, every piece of analysis that existed is no longer relevant,” she said, stressing nonetheless that the alliance with the US was wide-ranging and robust.

Speaking to CNN’s Becky Anderson on Thursday, Vali Nasr, professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), said the US needs to rethink its Middle East policy “because it has been based on a very different conception of Saudi Arabia.”

Analysts, however, say that the Middle East is unlikely to become an arena for US-Chinese rivalry, given Beijing’s economy-oriented focus and its aversion to playing regional politics. The Saudi-China relationship is therefore unlikely to become a full-blown alliance.

Saudi Arabia is China’s biggest supplier of crude, and China is the biggest destination of Saudi oil exports. The kingdom’s economy is nonetheless tied to the US as its currency is pegged to the dollar and the sale of its oil is conducted in that currency. Saudi Arabia’s defense infrastructure is also heavily reliant on American equipment.

Jonathan Fulton, senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, says that China has a strict non-alliance policy and is unlikely to want to get bogged down in Middle Eastern conflicts.

“An ally is typically someone you’re aligned with against a third country or a bloc of third countries… and China doesn’t want to do that,” he told CNN. “They don’t want to get caught up in other countries’ issues, especially in the Middle East.”

Unlike Western states, China also offers Saudi Arabia its policy of non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs, an issue that was clearly spelled out when Chinese President Xi Jinping made a landmark visit to Riyadh last year

Fulton said that the two are unlikely to interfere in each other’s affairs mainly because “neither side matters that much to the other,” and that each state’s core interests are beyond the scope of the other’s priorities.

That may work well for Saudi Arabia, which has been on the receiving end of a barrage of criticism from the Biden administration and Congress for its human rights record. For China, it means that Saudi Arabia will continue its silence on matters such as its treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in northwestern region of Xinjiang, which the US in 2021 labelled a “genocide.”

After the surprise Saudi-Iran agreement was announced this month, the Biden administration appeared to downplay China’s role. White House Spokesman John Kirby said internal and external pressure, including effective Saudi deterrence against attacks from Iran or its proxies, ultimately brought Iran to the table, Reuters reported. But he welcomed it “regardless of what the impetus was, or who sat down at the table.”

Fulton said China’s mediation isn’t necessarily a change in its Middle East policy. It was a “regional approach to a regional problem,” he said, which regional actors saw the US unable to resolve.

The digest

UAE leader names his son as Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi

The leader of the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday named his eldest son as crown prince of Abu Dhabi and his likely successor as president. President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), who is also ruler of Abu Dhabi, named Sheikh Khaled bin Mohamed as crown prince of the emirate, state-run WAM news agency reported. MBZ also appointed his brother Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed as vice-president of the UAE, a position he will share with the ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the UAE Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (MBR), 73, who is also his father-in-law. The position was previously held solely by the ruler of Dubai.

  • Background: The move comes 10 months after MBZ became president of the Persian Gulf nation following the death of his brother Sheikh Khalifa. The oil-rich UAE is a member of the OPEC oil cartel and controls some of the world’s biggest sovereign wealth funds. The nation is a federation of seven emirates, each with its own ruling family, which also includes the regional business and tourism hub Dubai.
  • Why it matters: The naming of a second vice-president for the first time indicates an attempt by Abu Dhabi to centralize power “in an inclusive way,” said Cinzia Bianco, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. The UAE president wanted to give prominent positions in Abu Dhabi to members of his family because “having a leading position in Abu Dhabi is having a leading position over the entire country,” she said.

Turkey approves Finland’s NATO application, clearing the last hurdle

The Turkish Parliament voted unanimously in favor of Finland’s membership on Thursday, putting an end to months of delays. Turkey continued to block Sweden from joining the military alliance.

  • Background: Finland and Sweden had for decades committed to non-alignment with NATO to avoid provoking Moscow. That changed when Russia invaded Ukraine, forcing the Scandinavian countries to re-evaluate their neutrality. A majority of NATO members welcomed their applications but Turkey and Hungary stalled the process. Turkey accused the two of housing Kurdish “terrorists,” while Hungary claimed they were spreading “outright lies” about the country’s rule of law record. Under the accession rules, any member state can veto a new country from joining.
  • Why it matters: The vote fulfills Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s promise to allow Finland into the defense alliance. Turkey was the last NATO member to approve Finland’s accession. However it appears steadfast in its opposition to Sweden’s membership. Erdogan has previously conditioned Turkey’s approval on Sweden’s extradition of “terrorists.” Stockholm has made clear this won’t happen for now.

UAE cancels license for Russia’s sanctioned MTS bank branch

The UAE central bank said on Friday it will cancel the license for a branch of Russia’s MTS bank, which was placed under British and US sanctions in February. Operations at the bank will be wound down within six months under central bank supervision, it said. During the winding-down process the branch will not be allowed to open new accounts or conduct transactions apart from clearing prior obligations, for which purpose alone it will be allowed to use the central bank’s payment systems, it said.

  • Background: The UAE said in early February that it granted a license to MTS Bank last year, before it was sanctioned by the US. The UAE, which has not placed sanctions on Russia, has seen an influx of Russians since the invasion of Ukraine. MTS is a fintech unit of Russia’s largest mobile operator Mobile TeleSystems and had operations in Moscow and Abu Dhabi.
  • Why it matters: The UAE has come under increasing pressure by the US to crack down on Russian trade in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Washington has warned that countries not abiding by US sanctions risk losing access to G7 markets.

Around the region

Syrian radio stations are broadcasting a new kind of lullaby every evening to help traumatized children across the country fall asleep.

The Frequencies of Peace lullaby project is the work of neuroscientists and music therapy application Spiritune aimed at Syrian children.

Ghaliaa Chaker, a Syrian singer based in Dubai, wrote and recorded the lullaby in Arabic. The 24-year-old was used to writing songs, but never a lullaby. She says the subject pulled her in.

“Writing a lullaby never crossed my mind. But the thing that influenced me was the topic. To be able to help Syrian kids and refugees,” Chaker told CNN.

The initiative combines music therapy and clinical research from neuroscientists at New York University and Stanford University. It identifies musical characteristics that trigger emotions in the brain to induce and improve sleep.

Chaker says it was difficult to get the lullaby right.

“It was back and forth with the neuroscientists. We were working on specific frequencies for the song because we wanted it to be easy for the kids,” she told CNN, adding that they didn’t want it to be too emotional or too happy.

Syria’s civil war began in 2011, leaving thousands of Syrians exiled and displaced, and others lacking access to food and shelter. According to UNICEF, around 5 million children need help coping with the effects of war.

This has been exacerbated by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey on February 6 which killed over 7,000 people in Syria.

Therapy app Spiritune, which uses scientifically backed methods for therapy through music, provided scientific guidelines for musical composition, with help from neuroscientist Daniel Bowling, CEO Jamie Pabst told CNN.

Bowling, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, said studies have shown that simple melodies can calm children, adding that the lullaby campaign includes familiar elements – such as the Arabic language – which can help regulate the nervous system.

Chaker said she hopes the lullaby eases the memory of the violence Syrian children faced over the past decade. “It’s impossible to say that a song will make them forget anything,” she told CNN. “But we’re all hoping that trauma is a bit less harsh than it already is.”

By Dalya Al Masri

Photo of the day

Yazidi devotees press olives during an annual religious tradition at the Lalish Temple in a valley near the Kurdish city of Dohuk in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region on Thursday.

Yazidi devotees press olives during an annual religious tradition at the Lalish Temple in a valley near the Kurdish city of Dohuk in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region on Thursday.