Saudi Arabia’s Diplomacy Is Increasingly Autonomous and Flexible
The year 2022 may have left a mark in Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic history. The global energy shortage and changes in the geopolitical landscape caused by the escalation of the Ukraine crisis in February 2022 have made Saudi Arabia’s strategic importance increasingly prominent. Driven by nationalist ideology, Saudi Arabia is not afraid of pressure from the United States and Western countries, makes full use of the strategic gap left by the game of great powers, actively expands its diplomatic space, and implements a flexible foreign policy that is diversified and balanced, which is quite eye-catching on the international stage.
Slightly better diplomacy with the United States
After U.S. President Biden took office in 2021, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States has taken a sharp turn for the worse, no longer the “honeymoon period” during Trump’s administration. The Biden administration has implemented “value diplomacy” against Saudi Arabia, using the Yemen conflict that has continued since 2015 and the murder of Saudi journalist Khashoggi in 2018 to put pressure on it. Saudi Arabia has adopted a tough policy to fight back out of three considerations: first, it believes that the strength of the United States is not as good as before, and relying solely on the United States is no longer in line with the increasingly diversified national interests of Saudi Arabia; Security commitments have been loosened. At the same time, after the Biden administration came to power, it tried to restore the Iran nuclear agreement and relax sanctions against the Houthi armed forces in Yemen, which directly damaged the national security interests of Saudi Arabia. The largest oil exporter in terms of production capacity, its strategic position has been greatly improved, and it is no longer willing to bow to the United States.
In July 2022, in order to prevent oil production cuts, Biden changed his arrogant attitude and visited Saudi Arabia. However, this “ice-breaking trip” that the United States placed high hopes on did not reverse the decline in Saudi-US relations. In October 2022, under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, the 33rd ministerial meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and non-OPEC oil-producing countries (OPEC+) decided to reduce the total daily crude oil production by 200% from November 2022. million barrels. This decision is nothing less than a heavy blow to the Biden administration and its Democratic Party before the 2022 midterm elections in the United States. However, since then, the Biden administration has taken the initiative to show favor to Saudi Arabia, saying that since Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed has served as prime minister in September 2022, according to international practice, as head of government, he enjoys judicial immunity in the Khashoggi case. This not only means that the Khashoggi case has been completely “overturned”, but also declares that the “values diplomacy” implemented by the Biden administration against Saudi Arabia has ended in failure.
The turnaround in Saudi-U.S. relations is inseparable from the domestic political dynamics of the U.S. and the geopolitical situation in the Gulf region of the Middle East. On the one hand, the U.S. Democratic Party has achieved better-than-expected results in the 2022 mid-term elections, and U.S. gasoline prices have also fallen, which makes it no longer urgent for the Biden administration to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in oil production. On the other hand, intelligence and military cooperation against Iran has become an entry point for the relaxation of Saudi-US relations. Negotiations on the Iran nuclear agreement have come to an impasse again, gradually closing the “window of hope” for the easing of US-Iran relations and regional conflicts. After the Ukraine crisis escalated, military cooperation between Russia and Iran has become a new conflict between the latter and the United States. The United States is increasingly concerned about the threat of Iran, and Saudi Arabia and the United States have once again found a point of intersection of interests. In November 2022, US media reported that Saudi Arabia shared intelligence with the US that Iran was about to attack Saudi Arabia. Although Iran later denied that it posed a threat to Saudi Arabia, this intelligence cooperation became an important turning point for Saudi Arabia and the United States to restart their strategic coordination. As a result, the Saudi-US relations, which will continue to be turbulent in 2022, will show a trend of stabilization and recovery. In this contest between the two countries, Saudi Arabia has clearly gained the upper hand through struggle to safeguard its own interests, which is unprecedented in the history of Saudi-US relations. After the game with the United States achieved the desired goal, Saudi Arabia stopped in time, hoping to restore relations with the United States. This also reflects the flexibility of Saudi Arabia’s “fight without breaking” diplomacy with the United States.
Relations with China reach new heights
From December 7 to 10, 2022, President Xi Jinping was invited to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, to attend the first China-Arab States Summit and the first China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit and pay a state visit to Saudi Arabia. The “Three Rings Summit” is the first time that all member states of the League of Arab States hold a summit with a sovereign state, and it has become a milestone event in the history of China-Arab relations. As the initiator and host country of the summit, Saudi Arabia has made important contributions to the success of this major diplomatic event, demonstrating that it is leading the trend of “Looking East” and developing in an all-round way in the Middle East at the three levels of China-Saudi Arabia, China-Sea China and China-Arabia Strategic determination in relations with China.
During the summit, China and Saudi Arabia achieved fruitful results in the development of comprehensive strategic partnership and practical cooperation in various fields. The two heads of state personally signed the “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement”, and decided to hold a meeting between the heads of state in the two countries in turn every two years, and at the same time raise the level of the leader of the China-Saudi Arabia High-Level Joint Committee to the prime minister level. In addition, the two sides decided to strengthen the strategic docking between the “Belt and Road” initiative and Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030”, and signed dozens of inter-governmental and inter-enterprise cooperation agreements. The hosting of the “Three Rings Summit” also marks a major shift in the diversification of Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic partners. Although the United States has been trying to obstruct Saudi Arabia’s development of cooperation with China, Saudi Arabia has withstood the pressure and made the right choice in line with its own interests, the world pattern and the historical trend .
maintain strategic coordination with Russia
With the success of the U.S. shale oil revolution and other alternative energy sources continuously grabbing international market share, OPEC headed by Saudi Arabia has been unable to easily influence international oil prices. Therefore, in 2019, Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members chose to form a strategic alliance with important non-OPEC oil producers such as Russia to jointly regulate international oil prices and establish the “OPEC+” mechanism. The establishment of this mechanism marks that Russia has become an important partner in Saudi Arabia’s energy policy, which deeply binds the interests of Saudi Arabia and Russia.
After the Ukraine crisis escalated, Saudi Arabia did not choose a side to join the “anti-Russia alliance” as requested by the United States. Saudi Arabia calls on Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine, but opposes the use of sanctions by the United States and the West to put pressure on Russia. At the same time, it also provides humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and actively mediates talks between Russia and Ukraine. In December 2022, under the personal mediation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed, Russia and the United States successfully completed the exchange of detainees at Abu Dhabi Airport in the United Arab Emirates, and exchanged the well-known American women’s basketball player Britney Greener for Russian businessman Victor Bout. At the same time, the oil policy coordination between Saudi Arabia and Russia under the framework of “OPEC+” is still very close. After the Ukraine crisis, Saudi Arabia also took the opportunity to acquire and invest in Russian energy assets, and purchased large quantities of Russian crude oil at low prices for power generation or resale.
The realistic basis for the rise of diplomatic autonomy
The rise of Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic autonomy is the result of both internal and external factors. From the perspective of internal factors, Saudi Arabia has the resources and conditions to become a middle-level power. Saudi Arabia is the “leader” of the GCC and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and the only member of the Arab world in the Group of Twenty (G20). Its oil reserves rank second in the world and it is also the world’s largest oil exporter. According to the forecast of the World Bank, Saudi Arabia’s economic growth rate will reach 8.3% in 2022, leading the world, and its economic aggregate is expected to exceed the US$1 trillion mark, becoming the first trillion-dollar economy in the region.
In addition, Saudi Arabia is the country where Mecca, the first holy site of Islam, and Medina, the second holy site, are located, and has a unique and important position in the Islamic world. Since the Arab upheaval in 2011, traditional Arab powers such as Egypt, Syria, and Iraq have fallen into turmoil, while Saudi Arabia has maintained political stability and economic prosperity, gradually becoming the geopolitical center and leading force of the Arab world. After the younger generation of Saudi leaders came to power, they launched the “Vision 2030” plan in 2016 to promote the country’s overall transformation and position the country as “the core country of the Arab and Islamic world, a global investment powerhouse, and a world hub connecting the three continents of Asia, Europe and Africa.” , This marks that Saudi Arabia has begun to embrace the “dream of a strong country.” This reflects the nationalist turn of Saudi diplomatic thinking. Driven by the “dream of a strong country”, Saudi Arabia no longer uses pan-Islamism as the basis of political legitimacy, but tries to replace it with nationalism that prioritizes national interests. The ultimate goal of Saudi diplomacy As a result, China has never been more determined to safeguard national interests, and its diplomatic discourse has a strong nationalist overtone.
From the perspective of external factors, the diversification of interests has prompted Saudi Arabia to develop a diversified and balanced equidistance diplomacy with major powers, and “bet on multiple sides” among major powers. The United States used to be Saudi Arabia’s main oil sales market, investment destination and security provider, and the two sides established an alliance on the basis of “oil for security”. However, after the United States achieved energy independence through the shale oil revolution, its dependence on oil from the Middle East has dropped significantly. U.S. crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia will drop from about 2 million barrels per day in 1990 to about 400,000 barrels per day in 2022, and its imports will only account for about 5% of Saudi crude oil exports in 2022. Therefore, the US energy market is very important to Saudi Arabia. Saying has become trivial. However, the United States will remain an important ally of Saudi Arabia in terms of security and military. At present, it is difficult for Saudi Arabia to find an alternative partner in this field, so it will still rely on the security protection of the United States for a long time. In addition, US-made weapons account for as much as 75% of Saudi military equipment. Without US arms and parts, background software and maintenance support, the Saudi army will be difficult to operate. However, since shrinking from the Middle East strategy has become the long-term strategy of the United States, this determines that the future of Saudi Arabia-US relations will not be smooth.
On December 7, 2022, before the official opening of the first China-Arab States Summit, the national flags of China, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries fluttered on the streets of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, Asian countries have become the main export markets for Saudi crude oil. At present, about 75% of Saudi crude oil exports are sold to Asian countries such as China, Japan, South Korea, and India, among which crude oil sold to China accounts for about a quarter of Saudi crude oil exports. . China has become Saudi Arabia’s largest oil export market, and Saudi Arabia is also China’s largest source of oil imports. Therefore, maintaining the “big buyer” of Asian oil has become the top priority of Saudi Arabia’s diplomacy. Among the relations between Saudi Arabia and major powers, the Sino-Saudi relations have the most prospects, not only because the two sides have great complementarity in fields such as energy, but also because development is the main orientation of bilateral cooperation. After Saudi Arabia held the “Three Rings Summit”, some Western media misunderstood it as the country’s “divorce from the United States and pro-China”, but this is actually not in line with the direction of Saudi Arabia’s diversified and balanced diplomatic transformation. At the same time, the coordination with Russia on energy policy is also related to the practical interests of Saudi Arabia. It can be seen that the relationship between Saudi Arabia and major powers has significant issues, which determines that Saudi Arabia will cooperate with different major powers in different fields and use the game of major powers to gain more diplomatic space.
However, Saudi Arabia still has many shortcomings in the field of diplomacy. The increase in Saudi diplomatic autonomy is a passive move in response to the continued US strategic withdrawal from the Middle East, and to a certain extent reflects the lack of its own strength. In the past two years, Saudi Arabia has integrated into the Middle East’s diplomatic “détente” and actively improved its relations with Qatar, Turkey, Israel and other countries. However, the conflicts between Saudi Arabia and related countries have not been truly resolved, and its geopolitical environment has not been substantive. changed. For example, Saudi Arabia is still mired in the mire of the conflict in Yemen and has yet to find a decent way out; although the “Khashoggi case” has been closed, it will not be a one-day effort to repair the damage it has done to Saudi Arabia’s international image. In addition, the escalation of the Ukraine crisis is an international emergency. It will cause a shortage of global energy supply in the short term, but it will be difficult to reverse the overall trend of global energy transformation. This means that if Saudi Arabia fails to realize the comprehensive transformation of the country as scheduled, its international status may be repositioned, which will restrict the expansion of its diplomatic capabilities.