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Saudi Arabia sees China as a key partner in a multipolar world — with the two countries expected to only come closer as their common interests grow, Saudi Minister of Investment Khalid Al-Falih told CNBC.
“This is, in a way, a multipolar global order that has emerged — it’s not emerging. China is a significant player in it,” Al-Falih told CNBC’s Dan Murphy during the Arab-China Business Conference in Riyadh Tuesday, now in its 10th year.
A multipolar world in this context signifies a global system that isn’t dominated by the West or defined as a struggle between two major powers, as it was during the Cold War.
“We like to believe, and I think it’s been proven, that the kingdom is a significant part of this multipolar world that has emerged. And we’re going to play our part, not only in developing our own economy, but also developing our region, and spreading what we have in terms of development opportunities, also to Africa, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent,” he said. “And we believe that economic cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), and the entire Arab region, will be a significant part of that.”
The post-Cold War period saw the United States exist as the preeminent world power, the strongest force on the planet in terms of economic, military, and geopolitical might. The rise of China and the BRICS (other emerging markets that include Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa), as well as anger in many parts of the world over U.S.-led wars and sanctions campaigns, led to increasing calls for a world order in which power was more widely distributed among different countries.
Saudi Arabia, in balancing its friendships with both China and the U.S., sees itself as a part of that. The kingdom has also become a much more active global player, wielding its oil-fueled financial power to supercharge its international trade and investment and gain influence around the world.
“I think significantly, we see opportunities for Chinese companies and Saudi companies to also invest internationally in third countries … in ways that will bring development to other developing countries. I think this summit signifies an increasing tendency towards south-south collaboration and partnership,” he said, referencing the global south, “because the south now has many centers of excellence in technology and capital, we’re no longer dependent on the developed north, [as] in the previous world order.”
The more than 80-year-old relationship between Riyadh and Washington is often summed up in broad terms as one of oil in exchange for security. The U.S. has military installments in Saudi Arabia, selling it advanced weaponry and providing training and joint operations with the Saudi military.
But the U.S.-Saudi relationship has come under strain in recent years, as the Biden administration attempted to call out the kingdom for its human rights abuses and influence its oil production volumes, but to no avail.
Chinese President, Xi Jinping (L) is welcomed by Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (R) at the Palace of Yamamah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on December 8, 2022.
Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
China, meanwhile, has for years been making inroads — especially economically — as Saudi Arabia’s top trading partner and the largest buyer of its oil. Riyadh’s relationship with Beijing is more functional and economic than strategic, though, meaning it is not likely to supplant the U.S.’s role in the kingdom anytime soon.
However, Saudi Arabia in recent years has been buying more Chinese weapons, in particular the ones that Washington has been less than willing to sell its Gulf ally, like lethal drones. Technology transfers and Chinese infrastructure projects are also growing in the kingdom, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seeks to diversify his country’s alliances and make it more independent.
Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia in December, and the two countries signed a strategic partnership agreement that the Chinese foreign ministry at the time called “an epoch-making milestone in the history of China-Arab relations.”
“I see it going into a significant shift from a trade to a core investment relationship,” Al-Falih said of his country’s ties with Beijing.
“We already invest significantly in China, mostly in oil refining and petrochemicals. But there have been other investments in technology by the PIF (Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund), and by other private sector companies. But we would see, going forward, more global champions from Saudi Arabia going to China to access a growing market of 1.4 billion high-consumption individuals.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan (R) escorts US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as they arrive for a meeting with GCC Ministers at the GCC Secretariat in Riyadh on June 7, 2023.
Fayez Nureldine | AFP | Getty Images
Notably, the Arab-China conference was held just days after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Riyadh. Al-Falih shrugged off the idea that its growing ties to China were a threat to the U.S.
“Saudi Arabia is going to be a partner to all of the major economies globally. And China certainly is a prominent one in that field,” he said.
“We have a fantastic relationship with the U.S., it’s been part of our global relationships since the creation of the modern Saudi Arabia, that is well known, and I believe it is very strong, as evidenced during the visit of President Biden last year. And I think the fact that Secretary Blinken was here last week just reinforces that strong relationship.”
He noted that the U.S. remains the kingdom’s largest foreign investor, saying “I don’t see our relationship with the U.S., with China as being mutually exclusive. I think, in fact, they complement each other.”
“We don’t see disruptions and those relationships happening,” the minister added. “But certainly what sets our strategy is our own interests, and those interests with China are strong and rising.”