scorecardHow Saudi Arabia's crown prince snubbed Biden repeatedly to forge ties with authoritarian China and Russia
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How Saudi Arabia's crown prince snubbed Biden repeatedly to forge ties with authoritarian China and Russia

Tom Porter   

How Saudi Arabia's crown prince snubbed Biden repeatedly to forge ties with authoritarian China and Russia
PoliticsPolitics3 min read
Chinese President Xi Jinping with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the royal palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 8, 2022.    Yue Yuewei/Xinhua via Getty Images
  • In 2022, Saudi Arabia sought closer ties with Russia and China.
  • At the same ties its relations with traditional ally the US have been turbulent.

In Riyadh in early December, China's President Xi Jinping met with Saudi Arabia's de-facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, to announce a "new era" in relations between the countries.

They touted sweeping new trade and energy deals, and alignment on issues ranging from the war in Yemen, to digital infrastructure and space research.

It was the culmination of years of alliance-building between Beijing and Riyadh in their increasingly brazen opposition to US global dominance.

"Saudi Arabia and China each find each other useful. They have significant economic ties, and they expect those to grow," the analyst Jon Alterman told Insider in an interview.

"While their concerns about US global leadership are very different, they both agree that a unipolar world led by the United States would undermine their interests," said Altermann, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

For China, the US stands in the way of further expanding its global influence.

For Saudi Arabia, it sees economic opportunity and the possibility of taking a bigger global role where several great powers are competing.

MBS and Putin
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attend the G20 Leaders' Summit in Buenos Aires, on November 30, 2018.      LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

And it's not just China that Saudi Arabia has been growing closer to, provoking US concern, but another authoritarian superpower and US adversary: Russia.

Back in October, Riyadh infuriated the Biden administration by announcing in tandem with Russia that it would be cutting oil production. The deal was reportedly a shock to Biden administration officials, who believed they had secured a secret agreement with Saudi Arabia to increase production in a bid to ease domestic inflation.

The deal also frustrated attempts by Biden to choke off Russia's income from international oil sales, part of the wave of sanctions imposed on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Saudi Arabia has refused to join in sanctioning Russia over Ukraine, though in a possible concession to the US condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine at a UN summit in October.

US criticisms infuriate Riyadh

To top it off, Crown Prince Mohammed has made no secret of his contempt for Biden, reportedly mocking Biden in private, and telling The Atlantic in March he doesn't care if Biden misunderstands him.

The lavish welcome he gave Xi contrasted with the muted one for Biden when he visited in July.

Analysts say that US criticism of Saudi Arabia's human-rights record and its suppression of domestic dissent infuriate Riyadh.

Biden's pledge on the campaign trail in 2020 to make the kingdom a "pariah" over the assassination of dissident Jamal Khashoggi was similarly greeted with fury by Saudi Arabia's leadership.

Crown Prince Mohammed has more affinity with the ideology of fellow strongmen Xi or Putin than with the US, said Alterman.

"They share a belief that a significant liberalization of domestic life would lead to social chaos, the collapse of morality, and political polarization," said Alterman.

"The Saudi leadership is much more comfortable with Saudi Arabia pursuing the Chinese path of tightly managed politics, strong state-owned companies, and limited social freedoms than pursuing the US model," he said.

Xi and Putin are silent on Saudi human rights abuses, and Crown Prince Mohammed has largely been happy to reciprocate by remaining silent on China and Russia's domestic repressions, said Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

Particularly notable is Crown Prince Mohammed's silence on China's brutal treatment of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province.

The US and several Western allies have labelled China's repression as a genocide, but Saudi Arabia has not intervened despite its role as the birthplace and spiritual center of Islam.

"Saudi Arabia, China, and Russia all believe in the model of 'authoritarian stability'. This factor helps explain why Riyadh never presses China's government on the human rights situation in Xinjiang despite the King of Saudi Arabia officially being the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques [situated in Mecca and Medina]," said Cafiero.

"These governments prioritize stability above individual rights and their approaches to security resonate with each other in some remarkable ways," he said.

As well as sharing ideological affinities with Russia and China, Saudi Arabia sees forming ties with them as sound diplomatic and economic sense, analysts say.

The nation is essentially hedging its bet, reacting to shifting rhetoric from Washington, DC, and declining US commitment to the Middle East.

"The Saudis fear it is reckless to rely entirely on the United States, whose long-term intentions they distrust and whose attitude toward Saudi Arabia has shifted dramatically between the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations," said Alterman.

But for all their differences, the US and Saudi Arabia share common interests that will ensure the survival of the alliance for the near future, analysts generally agree.

Saudi Arabia is reliant on US military protections and arms sales, while for the US, the Saudis are an important ally in a turbulent region, and a crucial counterweight against Iran.

"The United States remains Saudi Arabia's most important strategic partner. There is no country or collection of countries that can defend the country from external threats like the United States can," said Alterman.