Saudi Arabia: When Being Neutral Isn’t Neutral Anymore

"We do not believe in polarization or selecting between one partner and another," Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said, asserting the Kingdom’s right to act "based on its own interests" and to have "strategic partnerships with [many] countries."

But in a world upon which the Biden administration has superimposed a bipolar template of a good block and an evil block, strong, independent declarations of neutrality are no longer neutral. They are taking a side: not between the US on one side and Russia and China on the other but between a loyal US unipolar worldview and an uncommitted Russia-China multipolar world view. Saudi Arabia has not chosen Russia or China over the US, but they have chosen the Russia-China worldview over the US worldview.

Saudi Arabia has refused to join the sanctions regime on Russia. But they have done more than stay out of the issue. They have pursued their national interest and more than doubled their imports of Russian oil. When Biden personally flew to Saudi Arabia to court the Kingdom’s help to offset globally rising prices caused by the sanctions on Russia and to enhance the efficacy of those sanctions by increasing oil production, Saudi Arabia turned him down. OPEC+ announced that they were cutting oil production by two million barrels a day, representing an unexpectedly massive 2% reduction of the daily global supply.

The move infuriated the US because OPEC+ is an organization of OPEC and non-OPEC oil producing countries that is led by Saudi Arabia and Russia. The White House saw the decision as being coordinated with Russia and as evidence of Saudi Arabia siding with Russia. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that “It’s clear that OPEC+ is aligning with Russia with today’s announcement.”

At its recent April 3 meeting, OPEC’s Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee noted, not only that member nations had conformed with their commitment, but that they had committed to voluntary production adjustments in addition to those commitments. The announcement of additional cuts followed a March 16 meeting between Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak and Saudi energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman at which they discussed global oil markets and "stressed their countries’ commitment to the decision made by OPEC+ last October to reduce production by 2 million barrels a day until the end of 2023." Saudi Arabia seems to be continuing to pursue their own interest and to strengthen support and cooperation with Russia.

Saudi Arabian neutrality has further lined up with a multipolar world with their September 2021 admission as a dialogue partner in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The SCO is the world’s second largest international organization, after the UN, and includes Russia, China and India. Its primary purpose is to rebalance the US led unipolar world into a multipolar world. That process took a step forward on March 29 when the Saudi cabinet approved the decision to join the SCO as a dialogue partner. Saudi Arabia has committed to membership in a multipolar world. Saudi Arabia is also seeking membership in BRICS, the other major Russia and China led organization that seeks to balance US hegemony and create a new multipolar world.

Iran is also seeking membership in BRICS, and at its September 2022 summit, the SCO signed a Memorandum of Obligations for Iran to become a full member. At a meeting in April of this year, full membership will be finalized. 

Membership in the SCO is not the only way the two regional super rivals are warming relations and working with China in ways that work against US designs. On March 10, China "blindsided" the US by brokering an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran that frustrates US designs for the region. The two rivals agreed "to resume diplomatic relations between them and re-open their embassies and missions within a period not exceeding two months.”

True to their agreement, less than a month later, the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran met in Beijing where they signed an agreement to reopen their embassies and consulates in each other’s countries. They made the announcement standing on either side of China’s foreign minister. The US was nowhere to be seen.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has accepted a recent invitation from King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to visit Saudi Arabia, and Chinese President Xi Jinping is planning a meeting of the monarchs of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Iranian officials in Beijing later this year.

Saudi Arabia working with China to warm relations with Iran works against US designs for the region. A major feature of US foreign policy in the region is the establishment and maintenance of a coalition against Iran. At the heart of that coalition is Saudi Arabia firmly in the US anti-Iran camp. Saudi Arabia joining the Chinese led camp partnering with Iran frustrates those plans.

And it is not only China that is brokering agreements between Saudi Arabia and its rivals that stymie US foreign policy goals. While China has been brokering a diplomatic reunion between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Russia has been brokering a diplomatic reunion between Saudi Arabia and Syria. As the US has wanted Iran isolated, so they have wanted Syria isolated.

But Syria is isolated no more. On March 23, Saudi Arabia and Syria agreed to reopen their embassies. And the reunion is regional, not just bilateral. Saudi Arabia is reported to be ready to formally invite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to this May’s Arab League summit in Riyadh. The invitation, Syria’s first since 2011, would “formally end Syria’s regional isolation.” On April 1, Syria’s foreign minister went to Cairo for the first official visit in twelve years to begin the process of reinstating Syria in the Arab League. And on April 12, Syria’s foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, arrived in Saudia Arabia for meetings with Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister. It is the first visit to Saudi Arabia by a Syrian foreign minister since 2011.

The work being done to end Syria’s isolation and restart Saudi Arabia and Syria’s diplomatic relations is being led by Russia. As with Iran, Saudi Arabia is working with a power on the other pole in a way that works against US designs. CIA Director William Burns made a surprise visit to Saudi Arabia to communicate his frustration to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Iran and Syria.

Saudi Arabia is not abandoning its ties with the US nor aligning with China or Russia. But in insisting on neutrality and its right to act in its own national interest, it is aligning itself with the multipolar world view of China and Russia against the unipolar worldview of the US. In declaring its neutrality, in the battle of worldviews, Saudi Arabia is neutral no more.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.