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The Impact of the Ukraine War on Saudi Power Relations – Geopolitical Futures – 05.01.23

The conflict has spurred speculation about an emerging multipolar system says Hilal Khashan.

Since the beginning of the Ukraine war, political analysts have asserted that a Russian victory would lead to a multipolar international system, ending the United States’ more than three decades of global hegemony. They point to Saudi Arabia’s strong economic ties with China and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin as evidence of an emerging multipolar system, one in which Riyadh will terminate its partnership with Washington and join the Sino-Russian camp.

It’s doubtful that Russia will win an outright victory, given Ukraine’s determined resistance and the massive U.S. military support for Kyiv. But regardless of how the war ends, it’s unlikely that such a world will develop. Despite Saudi Arabia’s sometimes bumpy relationship with the U.S., the two countries are unlikely to drift apart.

Uneasy Relationship

Since the 1950s, tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United States have emerged on several occasions. Washington refused to help Riyadh in the dispute over the Buraimi Oasis. The administration of President John F. Kennedy recognized the Republic of Yemen when a 1962 coup overthrew the monarchy, instead of supporting the Saudi-linked insurgency there. It also failed to defend the kingdom when Egyptian planes bombed Saudi border villages. Saudi Arabia cut off oil supplies to the West at the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967 and in the October War in 1973. However, the two countries always managed to reconcile their differences.

Today, their relationship is once again experiencing a lull. Saudi Arabia is frustrated with the United States for repeatedly accusing Riyadh of human rights violations, eroding its security guarantees, and attempting to impose guidelines on oil production to isolate Russia at Saudi Arabia’s expense. In the past, the two countries dealt with their differences behind closed doors for the most part.

However, Joe Biden’s blatant criticism of the Saudi leadership during his presidential campaign resulted in a more public rift when Biden took office. Riyadh, for example, has expressed interest in joining the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping, believing this could ease U.S. pressure on Riyadh to change its behavior.

Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia last July failed to ease the tension. He said the U.S. would not relinquish the Middle East to China, Russia and Iran, but in his meeting with the crown prince, Biden again pressed him on Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemen war and the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

China’s Appeal

Five months after Biden’s trip, Chinese President Xi Jinping made his second visit to Saudi Arabia in six years. China has no political or security interests in the Middle East, so its outreach here is focused on trade.

In 2021, China exported goods to the Gulf Cooperation Council worth more than $87 billion. Exports to Saudi Arabia accounted for $30 billion. For Beijing, however, trade with the Middle East, as well as Russia, doesn’t compare to its relationship with the United States. Chinese exports to the U.S. and Japan in 2021 reached $577 billion and $166 billion, respectively.

That same year, Russia imported $68 billion worth of goods from China. It’s unthinkable, therefore, that Beijing would abandon its trade with Washington, or Western Europe for that matter, in favor of the Middle East and Russia. China didn’t express support for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and would have preferred maintaining the status quo. It doesn’t want to see Russian power strengthen or weaken, since Russian weakness would negatively impact China’s own standing vis-a-vis the U.S., and Russian strength would further polarize the global system, destabilize maritime trade routes and revive Russo-Chinese tensions.

China is still a rising economy, aspiring to broaden economic cooperation with countries around the world, especially since its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative has lost momentum. It’s been replaced by Beijing’s new plan, the Global Development Initiative, which appeals to Saudi Arabia with its sustainable development focus. The Saudis, who are struggling with their own development initiative, called Vision 2030, view China as the panacea for achieving economic growth without relying on hydrocarbons. Saudi Arabia wants advanced technologies that China can provide without strings attached, since Beijing has no political or security interests in the region. Its economic activities also don’t impinge on the economic interests of other countries in the region.

Russia’s Declining Influence

As for Moscow, its value as an ally has diminished because of its dismal performance in Ukraine. The war has turned into a costly affair for its military, and the Kremlin now realizes that its initial goals of capturing Kyiv and installing a pro-Russian government are unattainable. Hoping to reach a settlement to the conflict, it’s trying to strengthen its negotiating position through measures like organizing referendums to annex four eastern regions, threatening to use nuclear weapons, and bringing in a new commander for its forces in Ukraine.

Major conflicts like this one teach us that glorifying the past often reveals significant weaknesses that political and military leaders conceal from the public to preserve the collective morale. As a result of Russia’s military setbacks, Russian propaganda has begun to invoke the historical glories of Russia and the czarist and Soviet historical legacy. Still, the progress made by the Ukrainian army threatens to erode Russian influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. A Russian loss will have profound geopolitical repercussions, most notably for the international system.

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The Impact of the Ukraine War on Saudi Power Relations - By Hilal Khashan for Geopolitical
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Hilal Khashan

Hilal Khashan is a Professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. He is a respected author and analyst of Middle Eastern affairs. He is the author of six books, including Hizbullah: A Mission to Nowhere. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019.) He is currently writing a book titled Saudi Arabia: The Dilemma of Political Reform and the Illusion of Economic Development. He is also the author of more than 110 articles that appeared in journals such as Orbis, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Middle East Quarterly, Third World Quarterly, Israel Affairs, Journal of Religion and Society, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, and The British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies.

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