Growing Saudi-China ties unlikely to prompt major Saudi policy shake-ups
Despite rising concern in Washington about China’s inroads into the Middle East, including its increasing ties to Saudi Arabia, the recent Chinese-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran does not appear to herald any significant changes in posture toward Riyadh — from either critics or supporters of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
The latest developments appear so far to be leading both sides in the polarized U.S. foreign policy discourse on Saudi Arabia to double down on their previous positions — vocal critics of Riyadh are pushing ahead with efforts to limit U.S. ties with the kingdom, while those more supportive of the U.S.-Saudi relationship say that a closer relationship is the only way to prevent further Chinese encroachment.
Among critics of Saudi Arabia, the surprise agreement does not seem to have prompted any rethinking of efforts to tighten the screws on Riyadh. Days after the agreement was announced, Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Mike Lee (R-UT) announced new legislation aiming to force the administration to engage publicly with Congress on Saudi human rights violations and ultimately could force a Senate floor vote on cutting off aid to Saudi Arabia.
While noting that the deal represented a “continued move of Saudi Arabia away from the United States,” Murphy also said that “it’s a bit simplistic to jump to the conclusion that China getting involved in Middle East security is, by definition, bad for the U.S.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), another prominent critic of the Saudi regime and past U.S. efforts at rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, told Jewish Insider that the new ties with China compounded his reservations about Saudi Arabia.
“I already have a lot of concerns about Saudi Arabia. And certainly you see different authoritarian leaders sharing their models and their interests,” Merkley said. “We just have to realize that democracy and the rights that we have… are not things universally embraced, and that we’re going to see an ongoing competition in the world between the vision of democracy and the vision of authoritarian powers.”
Lawmakers like Murphy and Merkley’s have highlighted concerns about human rights and Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen as the centerpiece of their approach to Saudi Arabia.
“People like Chris Murphy… aren’t going to let this issue go,” Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told JI.
Supporters of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, argue, however, that the U.S. needs to reinforce its relationship with Saudi Arabia, to cut off further Chinese gains, which could challenge the U.S.’ longstanding military partnership with Riyadh.
“I think what we need to do is make sure that our allies in the Middle East know that we’re going to be strong allies. This is one of the things I heard when I was there last month, that whether we’re talking about Saudi Arabia, UAE or Israel, they want to know America is going to be there,” Sen. Pete Ricketts (R-NE) told JI. “When we send signals that we are weakening, for example, our disastrous pullout of Afghanistan, or how we didn’t respond quickly enough to the UAE when they were attacked with Houthi missiles last year, it sends a message to our allies that maybe they should be looking to China.”
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