Pivoting to the East in Middle East

Recent moves by Middle Eastern countries to explore hedging their relationship with the US by balancing them with relations with China and Russia in the emerging New Cold War have been increasingly lighting up America’s radar.

In August, 2020, CIA director Bill Burns warned Israel about its welcoming of Chinese investment in Israel’s tech sector and infrastructure projects. And just last week, Brett McGurk, the U.S. National Security Council’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, noting that he was surprised how much progress China has made in the Middle East, said that the US has "had a very close dialogue with friends across the region about certain activities that would jeopardize the level of American cooperation. We have had a very good dialogue, and a bit of an awakening I think from some of our partners in the Middle East region about this issue."

But there may have been less of an awakening than McGurk thinks. While Israel has promised to tell the US about significant deals it makes with China, and even to re-examine them if the US opposes them, Israel is also discussing its China policy and the "dilemma" of "whether Jerusalem should stand by the US or remain ‘under the radar’ in order not to lose business with China, which is Israel’s third-largest economic partner."

There may have been less of an awakening in Saudi Arabia than McGurk thinks too. On the very same day McGurk boasted of the awakening, Saudi Arabia announced that they are seeking "to enhance military ties [with China] to a higher level." In a meeting of the Chinese defense minister and the Saudi deputy defense chief, China "pledged to push forward ‘practical cooperation [and] strengthening solidarity’ between the two armies."

This pronouncement is alarming for the US but not entirely new. In August, 2021, Saudi Arabia went even further and actually signed an agreement with Russia to develop joint military cooperation. In October, China strikingly characterized the China-Saudi Arabia relationship as a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” Saudi Arabia called China “a truly credible strategic partner.” China is Saudi Arabia’s biggest trading partner, and China has promised to “actively participate” in Saudi Arabia’s major development projects and further synergize Saudi Arabia into the Belt and Road Initiative. 

What should be truly alarming for the US, though, is a single sentence that China and Saudi Arabia used and the pattern that is emerging between them. In the Chinese-Saudi meeting, China’s defense minister, Wei Fenghe, said that China and Saudi Arabia should "strengthen coordination and jointly oppose hegemonic and bullying practices."

That sentence is a clear reference to a US led unipolar world and to the potential of Saudi Arabia joining China and Russia in their attempt to counterbalance that unipolar world by promoting a new multipolar world.

That sentence gains importance when placed in the context of other recent events. In September, 2021, Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt and Qatar, was admitted to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a dialogue partner. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is crucially important organization that is a high priority for both Russia and China whose purpose is to act as an economic and foreign policy counterweight to the US in an attempt to rebalance the US led unipolar world into a multipolar one. Members of the SCO also develop their military cooperation.

Signing an agreement with Russia to develop joint military cooperation, becoming a strategic partner with China, joining China in opposing a US led unipolar world and joining the primary international organization for opposing that US led unipolar world forms the beginning of a pattern of Saudi Arabia hedging its foreign policy: not yet leaving the US camp but alarmingly – for the US – leaning toward China and Russia from within that camp.

And Saudi Arabia is far from feeling lonely. Already this year, China has hosted a delegation of foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia’s partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain, as well as the GCC’s secretary general. Syria, already in the Russian camp, also signed a cooperation agreement with China regarding the Belt and Road Initiative in January. There are now eighteen Middle Eastern and North African countries who have joined the Belt Road Initiative. Egypt has become a dialogue partner in the SCO, has a multibillion-dollar agreement with Russia for a nuclear reactor and has restarted arms sales with Russia. And Turkey, a NATO member, is growing increasingly impatient with the West and is looking more openly to Russia and China.

With Saudi Arabia in the lead, these moves are alarming for the US, not just because of the increasing desire in the Middle East to partner with Russia and China, but because of the increasingly anti-US led unipolar world nature of the moves and the language.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.