A History of the Saudi-Sino Relationship and Its Future Aspirations

by Adnan Nasser

This article was produced in collaboration with More Perspectives, a non-profit that supports emerging writers from underrepresented groups.

Illustration by Melania Parzonka

For more than 30 years, China and Saudi Arabia have worked diligently to look beyond their bitter history defined by Cold War politics, and build a relationship that carries the potential for a more prosperous Middle East—one driven primarily by security and economic cooperation, with energy at the forefront.

Although the relationship is still in its adolescence, China is eager to make up for lost time with “dependability.” When asked if China was a better ally to Saudi Arabia than America, then-Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saudi, replied “not necessarily a better one, but a less complicated one.” Chinese leadership has shown to be more consistent and predictable in its foreign policy, unlike the US, which may shift policies depending on who is in the White House. For the last few years, Saudi Arabia has been developing a new strategy of less reliance on the US and is now looking to China as a viable alternative. 

Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saudi

Historically, Riyadh’s attitude towards Beijing was not so friendly. In 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong declared China as a Marxist-Leninist state following his defeat of the Nationalist forces. Immediately afterwards, the United States refused to recognize Mao’s government as the legitimate representative of the Chinese people, and Saudi Arabia followed suit. That same year, both nations recognized the Nationalist government of General Chiang Kai-Shek, who had fled to Taiwan, as the official Chinese state. 

The Saudis were hesitant to open relations with Beijing due to China’s efforts to export its communist ideas around the world. China offered resources to leftist militant groups who were fighting against pro-capitalist and authoritarian regimes, and Saudi Arabia’s small neighbor, the Sultanate of Oman,  faced threats from Chinese-backed separatist groups led by the Dhofar Liberation Front in the 1960s. 

During this period, and possibly as a response to perceived aggression by leftist groups in the Gulf, Saudi leaders sympathized with Taiwan in its struggle against the communists over mainland China. Indeed, most of what held the relationship with Taipei together was based on the premise of Cold War anxiety surrounding  communism. In 1971, Saudi Arabia was the only Middle Eastern nation to vote against the motion of giving up Taiwan’s seat at the United Nations to the People’s Republic of China. 

The following year, Saudi Arabia imposed a trade ban on all goods coming out of China, out of fear that “propaganda” may enter the kingdom. During his first foreign visit to the Gulf kingdom in July 1997, Taiwanese President Yen Chia-Kan said, “Both [Saudia Arabia and Taiwan] have opposed aggression, persecution and slavery in their anti-communist struggle.” That said, over time, Saudi Arabia could no longer resist the reality that the small island state of Taiwan was not going to replace China. Their alliance based on a common enemy was coming to an end. 

Diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Beijing were formally established on July 21st, 1990, but clandestine meetings began in the 1980s, when Iraq and Iran were locked in a battle for regional supremacy that threatened Saudi security and the greater Gulf order. In response to the war, the Saudis sought to purchase American-made Pershing missiles to establish a balance of deterrence. Then-Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar explained that the royal leadership was eager to get its hands on military equipment that could strike at the heart of Iran as a counterattack to Iranian aggression. Washington ultimately refused to proceed with the sale due to pressure from Israel, who feared these missiles—which had a range of 3,500 kilometers—could be adapted to carry a nuclear warhead that would reach the Jewish state. 

This rejection led Saudi leaders to search for an alternative market, thus marking a change in perception of China and the purchase of 50 CSS-2 missiles. The deal, code-named East Wind, was concluded in December 1986. Ultimately, the necessity to defend its borders from Iranian incursions combined with American rejection in favor of Israel created the conditions for a Saudi-Sino rapprochement. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping

Although in the economic realm China and Saudi Arabia have accomplished a great deal, both countries have had their share of criticism from the international community, the largest coming from human rights organizations. The most recent report from Human Rights Watch revealed that 43 countries at the United Nations condemned China for its treatment of its Uyghur minority population in the Northern province of Xinjiang. Saudi Arabia was one of the few countries to support China’s policy in Xinjiang, saying Beijing is faced with threats of terrorism and extremism, and has undertaken a series of measures to stop radicalization in its country. Saudi Arabia has also widely been condemned by the United Nations, who called its human rights record “shocking.” China and Saudi Arabia pledged not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs, and Beijing said it supports the Kingdom’s sovereignty and right to security. 

Recently, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had a phone conversation with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud on resuming the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. They determined that joint efforts to push for greater bilateral relations was a common interest, with Wang saying that China will always give priority to Saudi Arabia in its diplomacy in the Middle East.  

To be sure, Chinese relations with Arab states are cordial across the region. This is significant, given that the Islamic Republic of Iran—a rival of the Saudis—is at loggerheads with Riyadh and currently engaged in numerous proxy wars throughout the Middle East, with the main battlefields being  Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. China does not want to see more blood spilled in the Middle East, as such instability hinders economic and business opportunities.

China is in an advantageous position to play its part through global institutions and leverage its historic ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran to mitigate problems between these countries. China and Iran signed a $400 billion trade deal on March 27, which had taken five years of negotiating. For the Saudis, China is a valuable customer because of its large energy requirements. It can be relied upon to buy more oil, while simultaneously investing in other growing sectors of the Saudi economy. In turn, Beijing hopes to supply local markets with low-cost goods. These maneuvers prove that China’s ambitions—including through its relations with Tehran and Riyadh—are to foster friendly relations with every Middle Eastern nation, to secure its energy needs for its growing economy and incorporate the region into its Belt and Road Initiative. 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Still, such moves have centered around making sure relations with Riyadh are based on the premise of mutual respect of political systems and energy security. In 2019, the trade value between the two countries was approximately $71 billion, with the majority consisting of crude oil flows from Saudi Arabia to China. The exports coming out of China were more diversified, with technology, machinery goods, and furniture topping the list. This means the money Beijing spends on Saudi oil is being sent back to its economy through the purchase of Chinese products. 

Through its new Saudi Vision 2030, Riyadh is preparing to create a more dynamic and productive economy. For decades, it depended heavily on revenues from its vast oil reserves. In 2018, the Chinese general consulate in Jeddah, Tan Banglin, said he saw the possibility of “synergy” for China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Saudi Vision 2030. This is already reflected in trade relations, with China exporting more non-oil products to the giant Gulf state than any other nation. Importantly, in 2011, China surpassed the United States as Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner. Beijing’s Middle East policy is now in full swing, with the Belt and Road Initiative as its flagship. China needs its relationship with Saudi Arabia to be solid, to have easier access to the region’s markets and to build an atmosphere of trust with the local population.

China and Saudi Arabia have put their acrimonious days behind them and are now embarking on a new relationship. Only responsible decision-making on both parts, along with the people’s approval, will determine whether this can be a positive development for the region. 

Adnan Nasser is an independent analyst of Middle Eastern affairs. His writing has been published in The Diplomatic Courier and The National Interest.