It was surely a visit to watch, US President Joe Biden fist-bumping a Prince declared to be a murderer by his intelligence agency. But it did happen, and it exposed the United States to much name-calling at home, with journalists publicly even questioning whether the President would apologise to the family of The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi believed to have been killed by Riyadh. But diplomacy is always an exercise in realism, and the truth is that Washington’s war against Russia and China, which the Ukrainians are fighting, is far more important than a Prince used to getting his way, and who has a friendly relationship with Beijing. He’s also rather a big noise for India, which makes the whole visit of considerable interest to Delhi.
Joe Biden's infamous fist bump with the Saudi Crown Prince has subjected the former to much name-calling back home. But diplomacy is always an exercise in realism.
Washington’s war against Russia and China is far more important than a Prince used to getting his way.
As Riyadh is likely to show, no real choice is required – just a deft balancing that is the trademark of Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar’s policy style that aims at keeping innumerable balls in the air at any given time.
Saudi defence is powered by US technology, but the Prince’s vision for a Saudi future would lie with Chinese companies.
There is certainly a significant coming together of Asian countries who want no part of Washington’s troublesome foreign policy, but neither do any of them fancy a China-dominated Asian order.
The ‘Pariah’ Factor
On the campaign trail, Biden had dramatically declared, “I would make it very clear we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them … We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.” That marked not just a thumbing at former President Donald Trump’s Middle East policy, but also that of the Democrat’s own policy under Obama, when the US sold Riyadh some $100 billion in weapons. That turned out to be a self-goal on 16 July 2022, when the US President was forced, reportedly against his will, to call on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, or ‘MBS’, as he is called.
So blatant was the U-turn that Biden felt it necessary to explain his reasons in The Washington Post, noting that his aim was “to reorient – but not rupture” the 80-year-old relations with Riyadh; he rather confusedly called for “mutual interests and responsibilities ... [and] American values”.
That last bit was clearly a nod to Jamal Khashoggi's murder, which the US intelligence agencies believe was on the orders of the Prince himself, and which Biden says he raised specifically. Saudi officials deny this and call for moving on. In the event, not much seems to have been achieved. The Joint Statement refers to extending peace in Yemen – truly welcome, but already a done deal – and a raft of agreements. Some are important to the region, including overflights in Saudi air space of Israeli commercial aircraft, and the withdrawal of a small US force from Tiran island on a part of the Red Sea that is Israel’s only access to the Gulf. Both of these agreements actually build on the hugely significant Abraham Accords, which broke the ice to begin diplomatic relations between Israel and some of her neighbours.
Almost No Takeaways
Also, Biden flew into Riyadh from Isreal, a message of sorts, where he had warned of a regional ‘vacuum’ being filled by China and Russia. On the all-important issue of upping oil production – and be sure that with gasoline prices at a 40-year high in the US, it was vital for Biden to get an agreement and not to ‘lose face’ – the US declared that the Saudis had agreed to a 50% increase over the levels agreed to in June by OPEC+, a grouping that includes Russia.
But the White House clearly doesn’t expect this immediately, since the next meeting of the grouping is in August. Besides, there is also the little question of what Riyadh will expect in return. Despite a clutch of agreements, including a rather surprising one on cooperation in outer space and a commitment “to help Saudi Arabia protect and defend its territory and people from all external attacks” (read Iran), which again virtually exists already, there is little that is new. Meanwhile, MBS has a Chinese card up his voluminous sleeve.
China Pals up with Riyadh
China has certainly upped its engagement with the Saudis since the rift with Washington, bringing Riyadh into the China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a dialogue partner last year. The SCO, where India is also a member, has become Beijing’s platform of choice, where there is no preaching to anyone on anything. Alongside, bilateral trade has risen to $66 billion in 2020, while that with the US was $19.5 billion.
MBS’s vision of expanding his Kingdom’s influence has also included pushing the ‘Public Investment Fund’ to invest some $10 billion outside the country, also applying for a licence last year to invest in China.
The head of the Fund is Yasser al-Rumayyan, who also heads Aramco, the state-owned entity that has Beijing as its largest trade partner. Earlier in 2012, China agreed to build a nuclear power plant and nuclear research reactors, and, more worryingly, has been accused of assisting the kingdom in building its own ballistic missiles. This is a development that could considerably complicate Washington’s strategy for the Middle East, particularly its pursuance of a nuclear deal with Iran.
Meanwhile, Riyadh continues to deport Uighurs back to China, and research finds a strong convergence between China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Saudi Arabia’s own vision 2030. It is true that Riyadh’s big-ticket weapons systems are still from the US, the rhetoric of a ‘pariah’ status notwithstanding, with the White House approving major conventional defence systems. Saudi defence is powered by US technology, but the Prince’s vision for a Saudi future would lie with Chinese companies.
No Real Choice Is Required, Really
The Ukraine war would seem to have tightened this embrace, with the Kingdom and its neighbours refusing to condemn Russia even as Aramco races past all the big names, as the war brings riches to oil producers. With China as their biggest trading partner, few are enthusiastic about Washington’s invective against Beijing, which brings much of this in line with India’s own interests. Delhi has very nearly made the transition to aligning with MBS’s core vision of moving away from the status of an ‘oil economy’ and nothing much else.
Since 2019, the two have upped their bilateral investments profile, but hit the brakes since Delhi’s own economy suffers from a war it has no interest in. Some Indian companies have been forced to pay Russia in yuan, while earlier, the Saudis were considering yuan-priced oil contracts. Businesses elsewhere are also taking this route.
None of this, however, means a crumbling dollar or a Chinese takeaway. There is certainly a significant coming together of Asian countries who want no part of Washington’s troublesome foreign policy, but neither do any of these fancy a China-dominated Asian order. As Riyadh is likely to show, no real choice is required – just a deft balancing that is the trademark of Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar’s policy style that aims at keeping innumerable balls in the air at any given time. It’s difficult. But as the Saudis will find out, it’s eminently possible. It’s also probably the only way to go.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)