Saudi diplomacy has gone into overdrive these days. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is in France to participate in the Summit for a New Global Financial Pact to be held in Paris next week. He will be in France for around 10 days and hopes to drum up support for Saudi Arabia’s candidacy to host the Expo 2030 world’s fair.
Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was in Riyadh trying to re-establish engagement with the Saudis after US President Joe Biden’s not-so-successful visit last year. Meanwhile, the Saudis have continued their engagement with Russia and even Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro visited Saudi Arabia and met with the crown prince before Blinken’s visit. Topping it all was the Arab-China business conference hosted by Riyadh recently where investment deals worth multi-billion dollars were signed between China and the Arab nations.
Life seems to have come a full circle for Mohammed bin Salman, who was ostracized by the western world after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, ostensibly at the behest of the crown prince himself.
The US has had the most difficult time adjusting to the new realities as Biden had been vociferous in his denunciation of MBS, suggesting during his 2019 election campaign that he would treat Riyadh like “the pariah that they are” if he was elected. Biden was positioning himself against his predecessor Donald Trump’s nonchalant attitude toward human rights violations by the Saudi regime and soon after his election, a national intelligence assessment concluded that MBS approved the operation that resulted in the death of Khashoggi, leading to some serious measures against Riyadh, including a visa ban on around 76 Saudi citizens.
Since then the relationship between Riyadh and Washington has struggled to get back on an even keel despite Biden visiting Saudi Arabia in July 2022. Though the visit did not yield much, with Riyadh refusing to accept the US request to reduce oil prices and continued its partnership with Russia in OPEC+, it became clear that the US was trying to reframe the contours of its ties with one its strongest allies in the Middle East. The fact that China seemed to be gaining ground in the Middle East was an added factor in this recalibration.
Beijing lost no time in filling the void left by the Americans. The most remarkable aspect of the Chinese outreach was the rapprochement Beijing managed to broker in April between arch rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, allowing for the reopening of embassies, resumption of direct flights and restarting of security and trade agreements. Yet it was a surprise waiting to happen. China’s clout in the Middle East has been growing for some time, as it looks to enhance its presence in the region from where it imports most of its oil. At the same time, Washington has been signalling that its interest in the region was dwindling. The chessboard in the Middle East was ready to be remade and Beijing has made it evident that it has the will to play this game.
Saudi Arabia, however, is not ready to put all its eggs in one basket. During Blinken’s visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan made it clear that the Saudis would prefer aid for their civilian nuclear programme to come from the US as they would like to build their programme “with the best technology in the world”.
There are other powers in the line as well willing to help Riyadh. The Saudis also underlined that normalization with Israel would have “limited benefits” without “finding a pathway to peace for the Palestinian people.” The message from Riyadh has been clear, that unlike in the past, Saudi Arabia is recalibrating its ties with the US as the oil rich kingdom searches for a new global identity with socio-economic changes being ushered in by MBS.
Mohammed bin Salman’s foreign policy posture has been one of diversification of partners. His visit to France and Europe last year was the beginning of the West’s acceptance as it sought alternative sources of energy in a post-Russia world. At the same time, he has continued with his cooperation with Russia in the global oil market even as China is fast emerging as the key economic partner.
Much like the rest of the world, in this age of global fluidity, Riyadh is also sculpting a foreign policy that will allow it to keep its options open. Its ties with India have also seen a strengthening in recent years as a pragmatic strain continues to shape Riyadh’s foreign policy evolution. In fact, last month the national security advisors of India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the US met “to advance their shared vision of a more secure and prosperous Middle East region.”
The geopolitics of the Middle East is in a churn and old assumptions are no longer valid in assessing the changes in the region. Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy transformation is perhaps the most visible manifestation of this churn.