Saudi Arabia and China: More Alike Than Different

Xi Jinping and Mohammed bin Salman

by Thomas W. Lippman

Before 1990, Saudi Arabia did not have diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. The rigidly anti-communist Saudis had continued to recognize the government of the Republic of China, on Taiwan.

In the years since, Riyadh and Beijing have forged a working relationship that has been useful to both sides, especially in energy development. China has been the largest purchaser of Saudi crude oil for a decade. The state-owned Saudi Basic Industries Corp. has found an insatiable market in China for its petrochemical products.

Saudi Arabia is China’s biggest trading partner in the Arab world, and both countries have pledged to expand and deepen their commercial and industrial ties. China’s embassy in Riyadh publishes extensive lists of bilateral cultural and educational exchanges.

In terms of politics and state organization, the two countries remain as different as they could be. Saudi Arabia is a hereditary monarchy that defines the purpose of the state as the protection and perpetuation of Islam. It has no political parties. China is an atheistic authoritarian state run with a firm hand by the leadership of the Communist Party.

And yet, in the ways they actually treat their citizens, the two regimes often seem more similar than different. In both countries, people are more-or-less free to make money, get an education, marry whom they wish to marry, travel, possess foreign currency, and, with some limitations, access the Internet. The government keeps an eye on them through extensive security networks, but mostly lets them alone—unless they say anything the regime perceives as dissent or do anything perceived to pose a challenge to the system. Independent political organizing is not permitted.

Saudi Arabia’s recent arrest of 12 people, including a group of women whose offense was agitating for the right to drive, reinforced a growing reputation for repression and drumhead justice similar to China’s. The government said that the women represented “orchestrated activity of a group of persons who dared to violate the country’s religious and national pillars through making suspected contacts in support of the activities of foreign circles and, moreover, recruiting some persons in charge of sensitive government positions, providing the foreign circles with money with the aim to destabilize the Kingdom and breach its social structure and mar the national consistency,” in violation of Saudi law. Newspapers published photos of some of the women superimposed with the word “traitor.”

The timing was baffling, because the government announced last year that women would be permitted to drive beginning in June 2018, so supporting a woman’s right to do so could hardly be construed as dissent. But the arrests followed a pattern that has grown since the rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has tirelessly courted foreign leaders but made clear that no political activity will be tolerated at home.

The phrase “suspected contacts in support of the activities of foreign circles” was especially ominous. Saudi academics and journalists with long ties to colleagues in the West have been telling these friends that they no longer feel free to conduct such conversations inside their country.

Jamal Khashoggi, a former newspaper editor in Saudi Arabia who now lives outside the kingdom, wrote of the arrests:

It is appalling to see 60- and 70-year-old icons of reform being branded as “traitors” on the front pages of Saudi newspapers… The arrests illuminate the predicament confronting all Saudis. We are being asked to abandon any hope of political freedom, and to keep quiet about arrests and travel bans that impact not only the critics but also their families.

On one level Saudi Arabia has been expanding the rights of women, allowing them to attend sports events as well as drive, and lifting some limits on employment and foreign travel. But as Human Rights Watch noted in a statement about the arrests, the crown prince has “overseen a widespread crackdown on prominent activists, lawyers, and human rights defenders, which has intensified since he began consolidating control over the country’s security institutions.”

The kingdom’s prisons are full of well-known and prominent people serving long sentences for alleged political crimes. So many people are being put to death that Amnesty International put the rate at five a week and accused the regime of “an execution spree.”

In its annual report on human rights conditions around the world, State Department said of Saudi Arabia:

The most significant human rights issues included unlawful killings, including execution for other than the most serious offenses and without requisite due process; torture; arbitrary arrest and detention, including of lawyers, human rights activists, and antigovernment reformists; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression, including on the internet, and criminalization of libel; restrictions on freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, movement, and religion; citizens’ lack of ability and legal means to choose their government through free and fair elections; trafficking in persons; violence and official gender discrimination against women, although new women’s rights initiatives were announced; and criminalization of same sex sexual activity.

That is not so very different what it said about China:

The most significant human rights issues for which the government was responsible included: arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life and executions without due process; extralegal measures such as forced disappearances, including extraterritorial ones; torture and coerced confessions of prisoners; arbitrary detention, including strict house arrest and administrative detention, and illegal detentions at unofficial holding facilities known as “black jails”; significant restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement (for travel within the country and overseas), including detention and harassment of journalists, lawyers, writers, bloggers, dissidents, petitioners, and others as well as their family members; censorship and tight control of public discourse on the internet, in print, and in other media… trafficking in persons; and severe restrictions on labor rights, including a ban on workers organizing or joining unions of their own choosing.

Saudi Arabia has no written criminal code. Its educated citizens have long said that they understood it was not permitted to step across the line in speech or activity, but they were often unable to discern where that line was until the government accused them of stepping over it. That appears to be what happened to some of those recently rounded up, such as Eman al-Nafjan, who for years wrote a sometimes sharp-edged English-language blog called SaudiWoman. She got away with it, until she didn’t.

Mohammed bin Salman has been promoting ambitious plans to integrate Saudi Arabia fully into the global economy, attract new foreign investment, and liberalize rules of social behavior. But it is beginning to appear that at home he is burning as many bridges as he is building.

Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than four decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored seven books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. – Saudi relations.



  1. Brilliant piece Tom. The harassment of the women activists was a clear signal (they are already starting to be released) that Nobody can engage in Challenging the State aspects of politics going forward. The Absolute Monarchy and tribal family rule in Saudi is close parallel to the Chinese Communist Party (also now Very insider/extended-family organized). Freedom in economics, capitalism in business and growing freedom and equality in social, sports, arts and culture. But Not in politics. China is the model, Not the USA.

  2. Thank you Thomas Lippman: I conclude there is difference between Saudi Arabia and Iran when it comes to Human Rights.

  3. “in the ways they actually treat their citizens, the two regimes often seem more similar than different. In both countries, people are more-or-less free to make money, get an education, marry whom they wish to marry” ? Really ? Saudi Arab women are free to marry non-Muslim men?

Comments are closed.