With Saudi deals, US, China battle for influence in Middle East
Washington, March 16: In a matter of days, Saudi Arabia carried out blockbuster agreements with the world’s two leading powers, signing a Chinese-facilitated deal aimed at restoring diplomatic ties with its arch-nemesis Iran and announcing a massive contract to buy commercial planes from US manufacturer Boeing.
The two announcements spurred speculation that the Saudis were laying their marker as a dominant economic and geopolitical force with the flexibility to play Beijing and Washington off each other.
They also cast China in an unfamiliar leading role in Middle Eastern politics. And they raised questions about whether the US-Saudi relationship frosty for much of the first two years of President Joe Biden’s term has reached a detente.
But as the Biden administration takes stock of the moment, officials are pushing back against the notion that the developments amount to a shift in the dynamics of the US-China competition in the Middle East.
The White House scoffs at the idea that the big aircraft deal signals a significant change in the status of the administration’s relations with Riyadh after Biden’s fierce criticism early in his presidency of the Saudis’ human rights record and of the Saudi-led OPEC+ oil cartel move to cut production last year.
“We’re looking forward here in trying to make sure that this strategic partnership really does in every possible way support our national security interests there in the region and around the world,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said of the US-Saudi relationship. He spoke after Boeing announced this week the Saudis would purchase up to 121 aircraft.
But China’s involvement in facilitating a resumption of Iran-Saudi diplomatic ties and the major Boeing contract one the White House said it advocated for have added a new twist to Biden’s roller-coaster relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
As a candidate for the White House, Biden vowed that Saudi rulers would pay a “price” under his watch for the 2018 killing of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the kingdom’s leadership.
More recently, after the OPEC+ oil cartel announced in October it was cutting production, Biden promised consequences for a move that the administration said was helping Russia. Now, Washington and Riyadh seem intent on moving forward, and at moment when China is at least dabbling in a more assertive Middle East diplomacy.
Saudi officials kept the US up to date on the status of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia on restarting diplomatic relations since they began nearly two years ago, according to the White House. Significant progress was made during several rounds of earlier talks hosted by Iraq and Oman, well before the deal was announced in China last week during the country’s ceremonial National People’s Congress.
Unlike China, the US does not have diplomatic relations with Iran and was not a party to the talks. The Iran-Saudi relationship has been historically fraught and shadowed by a sectarian divide and fierce competition in the region. Diplomatic relations were severed in 2016 after Saudi Arabia executed prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Protesters in Tehran stormed the Saudi Embassy and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed divine revenge for al-Nimr’s execution.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan earlier this week said China was rowing in the same direction with its work at quelling tensions between the Gulf Arab nations that have been fighting proxy wars in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq for years.
This is something that we think is positive insofar as it promotes what the United States has been promoting in the region, which is de-escalation, a reduction in tensions, Sullivan said.
But privately White House officials are sceptical about China’s ability, and desire, to play a role in resolving some of the region’s most difficult crises, including the long, disastrous proxy war in Yemen.
Iran-allied Houthis seized Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in 2014 and forced the internationally recognised government into exile in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led coalition armed with US weaponry and intelligence entered the war on the side of Yemen’s exiled government in 2015.
Years of inconclusive fighting created a humanitarian disaster and pushed the Arab world’s poorest nation to the brink of famine. Overall, the war has killed more than 150,000 people, including over 14,500 civilians, according to The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.