WASHINGTON (AP) — Within days, Saudi Arabia struck blockbuster deals with the world’s two major powers — China and the United States.
Riyadh signed a China-facilitated deal to restore diplomatic ties with arch-enemy Iran, then announced a massive deal buy commercial aircraft from the American manufacturer Boeing.
Both announcements spurred speculation that the Saudis were making their mark as the dominant economic and geopolitical force with the potential to play off Beijing and Washington against each other. They also placed China in an unknown leading role in Middle East politics. And they raised questions about whether the US-Saudi relationship – frosty for much of President Joe Biden’s first two years term — has reached a relaxation.
But as the Biden administration takes stock of the moment, officials push back against the idea that the developments amount to a shift in the dynamics of U.S.-China competition. in the Middle-East.
The White House scoffs at the idea that the big jet deal signals a significant shift in the status of the administration’s relationship with Riyadh after Biden’s fierce criticism early in his presidency over the human rights record man of the Saudis and the movement of the Saudi-led OPEC+ oil cartel. reduce production Last year.
“We look forward here to trying to ensure that this strategic partnership truly supports in every possible way our national security interests in the region and around the world,” the House National Security Council spokesman said. Blanche, John Kirby, on the United States. Saudi relationship. He spoke after Boeing announced this week that the Saudis would buy up to 121 planes.
But China’s involvement in facilitating a resumption of Iranian-Saudi diplomatic relations and Boeing’s major contract – the one the White House has said it is pushing for – have added a new twist to the roller-coaster relationship. of Biden with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
As a White House candidate, Biden vowed that Saudi leaders would pay a ‘price’ under his leadership for the 2018 murder of US journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the kingdom’s leadership. More recently, after oil cartel OPEC+ announced in October that it was cutting production, Biden promised ‘consequences’ for a move that the administration said helped Russia.
Now Washington and Riyadh seem determined to move forward, and as China at least dabbles in more assertive diplomacy in the Middle East.
Saudi officials have kept the United States informed of the status of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia on restarting diplomatic relations since their start nearly two years ago, according to the White House. Significant progress was made during several previous rounds of talks hosted by Iraq and Oman, long before the deal was announced in China last week at the country’s National People’s Congress ceremony.
Unlike China, the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran and did not participate in the talks.
Iranian-Saudi relations have historically been strained and clouded by sectarian division and fierce competition in the region. Diplomatic relations were severed in 2016 after Saudi Arabia executed prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Protesters in Tehran stormed Saudi Embassy and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed ‘divine revenge’ for the execution of al-Nimr.
Earlier this week, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said China is “rowing in the same direction” with its work to ease tensions between Arab Gulf countries waging proxy wars. in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq for years.
“It’s something that we think is positive in that it furthers what the United States has promoted in the region, which is de-escalation, a reduction in tension,” Sullivan said.
But privately, White House officials are skeptical of China’s ability and desire to play a role in resolving some of the region’s most difficult crises, including the long and disastrous proxy war in Yemen. .
Iran-allied Houthis seized Yemen’s capital Sanaa in 2014 and forced the internationally recognized government into exile in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led coalition, armed with US weapons and intelligence, went to war on the side of the Yemeni government in exile in 2015.
Years of unsuccessful fighting have created a humanitarian catastrophe and pushed the Arab world’s poorest nation to the brink of starvation. In total, the war killed more than 150,000 people, including more than 14,500 civilians, according to The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
A six-month ceasefire, the longest in the Yemen conflict, expired in October, but finding a permanent peace is among the administration’s top priorities in the Middle East. US special envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking is traveling to Saudi Arabia and Oman this week to try to take advantage of the UN-brokered truce that has brought calm to Yemen in recent months, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs. ‘State.
Beijing rushed into the Iran-Saudi talks at a time when the fruit was “already ripening on the vine”, according to one of six senior administration officials who spoke to The Associated Press under cover of a anonymity to discuss private White House deliberations. . The Iranian-Saudi announcement coincided with Chinese leader Xi Jinping being awarded a third five-year term as the nation’s president.
The official added that if China could play a “reinforcing role” in ending hostilities in Yemen, the administration would see that as a good thing. But the White House and Saudi officials remain deeply skeptical of Iran’s intentions in the war in Yemen or, more broadly, in acting as a stabilizing force in the region.
To date, China, which sits on the UN Security Council, has shown little interest in the conflict in Yemen, Syria or the Israeli-Palestinian situation, according to administration officials. Yet Xi this week called on China to play a bigger role in managing global affairs. after Beijing pulled off a diplomatic coup with the Iran-Saudi agreement.
“It has injected a positive element into the landscape of peace, stability, solidarity and cooperation in the region,” China’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Geng Shuang, said Wednesday before the UN Security Council. “We hope that this can also create conditions conducive to improving the situation in Yemen.”
Administration officials said Beijing has shown modest interest in reviving the seven-party Iran nuclear deal — to which it is a signatory — from which President Donald Trump withdrew the United States in 2018. The administration Biden has suspended efforts to revive the nuclear deal. last fall after the outbreak of protests in Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody for allegedly flouting the strict dress code for women in Iran.
To be sure, China – a major client of Iranian and Saudi oil – has steadily increased its regional political influence. Xi visited Riyadh in December and hosted Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Beijing last month.
But Miles Yu, director of the Hudson Institute’s China Center, said Xi’s call to be a more active player on the international stage would force Beijing to drastically change its approach.
“China’s diplomatic initiatives have been based on one thing: money,” said Yu, who served as China policy adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during the Trump administration. “They made friends in Africa and Asia, but it was mostly monetary. This kind of transactional relationship does not forge a permanent friendship.
Not every step China takes to engage more deeply with the Middle East necessarily hurts the United States, noted Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat and frequent critic of Saudi Arabia.
“But it’s probably true that China would have to bear some of the cost of securing oil that… frankly, is probably more important to them than to the United States in the long run,” Murphy said. “I think China has long benefited from being a free rider of US security investments in the region.”
The White House is not particularly concerned at this time about Saudi redirection towards China for several reasons, including the fact that the entire Saudi defense system is based on US weapons and components, officials said. administration. The officials added that it would take the Saudis at least a decade to transition from American weapons systems to systems geared toward Russia or China.
Saudi Arabia’s dependence on US-made weapons systems and the US military and commercial presence in the kingdom – some 70,000 Americans live there – have played a big role in the relationship which has gone through difficult times in the past. over the years, said Les Janka, former president of Raytheon. Arabian Systems Co. which has spent years living in the kingdom.
It would take “an incredible amount of activity to dismantle, given the reliance on American weapons, American technology, American training, everything to do with it,” Janka said.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.