by Giorgio Cafiero
As the Jamal Khashoggi affair and the ongoing war in Yemen continually increase the amount of criticism that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) receives in Western countries, he embarked this month on a three-leg Asia tour with stops in Pakistan, India, and China. The crown prince’s main objective was to secure greater Asian support for Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s grand economic reform agenda. His trip also took place against the backdrop of reduced American influence in the Middle East and the Trump administration’s incoherent foreign policy. Such factors have prompted Saudi Arabia, and virtually all of Washington’s Arab allies, to embrace a “Look East” foreign policy orientation in pursuit of closer relations with China and other economically vibrant Asian countries.
While MbS was in China, Saudi Aramco secured a $10 billion deal for a refining and petrochemical complex in Panjin (Liaoning province), and the kingdom signed 35 economic cooperation accords with Beijing worth $28 billion. Riyadh is increasingly interested in deepening the kingdom’s involvement in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, attracting more Chinese investment, and positioning Saudi Arabia as a hub for Chinese investment in Africa. The visit may have also pushed Riyadh closer to relocating its long-delayed Saudi Aramco IPO to a Hong Kong listing instead of New York or London.
While MbS was in Beijing, Saudi and Chinese officials signed an agreement that will include the Chinese language in curricula across the oil-rich Gulf kingdom. This agreement is important in illustrating how the Saudis see China and the future of bilateral relations. Future generations of Saudis who are fluent in Chinese will gravitate toward working in China, not the United States.
Talk of Anti-Radicalization Strategies
In the lead up to MbS’s visit to China, Uyghur groups had expressed hope that the crown prince would address their plight with the leadership in Beijing. Yet shortly after arriving to Beijing, MbS seemingly endorsed Beijing’s “securitization campaign” in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China, where over one million Chinese Muslim citizens, mainly from the Uyghur ethnic minority group, are detained in “re-education camps” or “vocational training schools.” MbS said that “China has the right to carry out anti-terrorism and de-extremization work for its national security.” Chinese President Xi Jinping told MbS that Beijing and Riyadh must work together to “prevent the infiltration and spread of extremist thinking.”
Although in diplomatic forums and in other largely symbolic ways Saudi Arabia has historically stood up for Muslims oppressed by non-Muslim governments, MbS’s characterization of China’s Uyghur policies illustrates how the crown prince is defining his leadership on the international stage. Just as Saudi Arabia has recently moved closer to Israel without any genuine regard for Palestinian rights and interests, MbS’s approach to Sino-Saudi relations is rooted in the pursuit of raw geopolitical interests. Put simply, China’s geo-economic weight has made criticism of its crackdown in Xinjiang too risky to make from the Saudi government’s perspective—whereas the Saudi leadership’s condemnation of the Myanmar government’s “policy of repression” of the Rohingya during 2017 indicated that Myanmar lacked such leverage vis-à-vis the kingdom.
The kingdom’s silence on the Uyghurs’ plight coupled with MbS’s recent words about the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang suggest that Beijing has bought much good will in Riyadh. China’s government, in marked contrast to Western governments, did not criticize MbS over the Khashoggi killing, which has given the crown prince greater incentive to reciprocate by not making any demands for Chinese officials vis-à-vis Xinjiang.
However, the Gulf monarchies do have genuine security concerns about Uyghur extremists. About a decade ago, two Uyghurs from Xinjiang who belonged to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) plotted to carry out a terrorist attack in Dubai. They sought to target the DragonMart retail complex with explosives that they had successfully tested. ETIM wanted to raise awareness of the Uyghurs’ plight by waging terrorist attacks outside of China to scare countries that do business with China into believing that they are vulnerable to the terrorist group’s campaign of deadly violence.
Islamic Legitimacy and the Turkish Factor
While it endorses Beijing’s “war on terror” in Xinjiang out of a desire for a better relationship with China’s government, Saudi Arabia faces challenges to its Islamic legitimacy from other sources. Turkey’s leadership has recently called out China for its coerced ethnic assimilation and oppression of the Uyghurs. On February 25, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu addressed China’s mistreatment of Uyghurs before the UN Human Rights Council, voicing support for Beijing’s “right to combat terrorism” while also demanding that China’s government take measures to protect the freedom of religion and cultural identities of Muslim groups in China. As Ankara and Riyadh compete for influence in the greater Sunni Muslim world, Saudi Arabia’s perceived endorsement of China’s “anti-extremism campaign” in Xinjiang provides Turkey with grounds to challenge MbS on Islamic grounds. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s condemnation of the Saudi-UAE-led blockade of Qatar as “un-Islamic” and his expressions of solidarity with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood following the Saudi-UAE-backed coup of 2013 illustrate the religious and ideological dimensions of Ankara and Riyadh’s competition for regional clout.
Domestic politics are in play, too. The Saudi leadership feels virtually no pressure from the kingdom’s citizens to challenge China’s government on these issues—unlike in Turkey, where public opinion is far more relevant to the democratically elected government’s policies. Furthermore, while MbS seeks to drive a wedge between China and Iran, the leadership in Riyadh figures that it is prudent to avoid criticizing the Chinese authorities for their abuses of fundamental rights in Xinjiang.
A Chinese Model for Saudi Arabia?
As authoritarian states, Saudi Arabia and China have a common understanding of certain issues that often puts them in the same boat. According to Beijing’s official narrative, the “pacification drive” in Xinjiang is about securing China from the threat of militant Islamist extremists. By focusing on social stability rather than the rights of individuals, the government in Beijing deals with internal security matters in a way that resonates with MbS’s emphasis on maintaining order in Saudi Arabia at the expense of individuals’ freedom of expression and civil liberties.
In fact, the Saudi leadership is attempting to learn lessons from China’s legal system: Riyadh and Beijing recently signed a memorandum of cooperation for sharing judicial information and expertise. In a world where governments increasingly use surveillance technology to hold citizens accountable for crimes, authoritarian states such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf sheikdoms see the government in Beijing as a model in many regards pertaining to internal security policies. China is, as one analyst said, a “perfect prototype” of Saudi Arabia as “people choose riches over freedom.”
China and Saudi Arabia, despite their conflict of interests over Iran, are both committed to capitalizing on a relationship that began growing closer decades ago. MbS has noted which governments condemned him for the Khashoggi saga and he will reward those, like China, that backed him during the uproar. Moreover, China is critical to the success of Vision 2030 and the future of Saudi Arabia. China is the kingdom’s top export partner, with Sino-Saudi trade reaching an estimated $63 billion in 2018. As long as these factors remain in play, the Uyghurs will not likely find an ally in MbS. Saudi Arabia will not allow the plight of oppressed Muslims in western China to damage the growing partnership between Riyadh and Beijing.