The dominant narrative through the past fortnight since the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation on November 4 from Riyadh has been that Saudi Arabia is working on a master plan in league with the United States to start a regional war.
The narrative demonizes the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as an impetuous, arrogant young man inebriated with power and wealth. Iran and Turkey significantly contributed to this narrative as indeed most western analysts, especially American experts.
A notable exception has been China, which broke the silence last week in a significant commentary featured in the Communist Party tabloid Global Times. The commentary took note of MBS’ anti-corruption drive as a sign of the “deepening of reforms,” praised him for his vow to destroy “extremist thoughts” and return the country to “moderate Islam,” and took an overview of the reforms as “an attempt to sustain the regime and get rid of the difficulties it faced.”
The commentary specifically praised the Saudi leadership on two counts. First, it upheld the authenticity of MBS’ desire to shift toward moderate Islam – “Saudi wants to be less bound by religion… Although Saudi strengthens its soft power by exporting Wahhabism, it leads to the spread of extremism, seriously damaging Saudi’s international image. Hence Riyadh wants to change.”
Second, on the diplomatic front, “Saudi turned away from its tradition of being close to the US and against Russia. King Salman visited Moscow for the first time last month to strengthen relations with Russia… Saudi wants to study the problems caused by rash diplomacy.” It cited the war in Yemen (“a bottomless pit draining Saudi’s wealth”) and rupture with Qatar as glaring examples of rashness, which worked to Iran’s advantage. It went on to counsel: “Saudi is in need of improving its diplomacy. Wooing Russia is a step in the right direction.”
The Chinese goodwill and understanding has been noted at the highest level in Riyadh. Which is one way of explaining the phone call by King Salman to the Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday on the pretext of congratulating the latter on the “successful completion” of the Chinese Communist Party’s recent party congress.
In a fairly detailed account, Xinhua singled out three things that Xi mentioned:
- “China’s determination to deepen strategic cooperation with Saudi Arabia will not waver, no matter how the international and regional situation alters.”
- “China supports Saudi Arabia’s efforts to safeguard national sovereignty and realize greater development.”
- China is willing to work with Saudi Arabia to deepen strategic cooperation, advance the strategic integration of the Belt and Road Initiative and the Saudi Vision 2030 plan.
Xinhua added, “In a bid to diversify its oil-dependent economy, Saudi Arabia announced the Saudi Vision 2030 growth strategy last year, which includes privatizing some state-owned companies.”
Salman in turn expressed interest in deepening cooperation with China in energy and finance and in becoming “an important partner of China in the Gulf region… This is in the interest of our two countries and is conducive to world and regional peace and stability.”
Without doubt, it has been a substantive conversation in which state oil company Aramco’s proposed IPO no doubt figured. Reuters had reported last month that Chinese state-owned oil companies PetroChina and Sinopec as part of a state-run consortium including China’s sovereign wealth fund wrote to Aramco expressing interest in buying up 5% or more of the Saudi equity directly in a deal that obviated the need of IPO.
Aramco’s IPO is the centerpiece of MBS’ reform plan known as Vision 2030 aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy away from oil. Indeed, it will turn upside down the prevailing narrative of a Saudi-US strategic axis in the regional politics, if Salman has responded positively to the Chinese consortium’s offer.
Salman’s call to Xi appears to be a deliberate signal by Riyadh that it is far from the case that Saudis have put all their eggs in the American basket. Equally, it signals that MBS’s recent rhetoric and militant posturing toward Lebanon, Hezbollah, Iran etc. notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia intends to live up to its reputation for conservative and moderate policies and is certainly not about to trigger a regional war in the Middle East.
A Russian pundit predicted recently that a Saudi-Iranian conflict would send crude prices skyrocketing to $300. And China happens to be the world’s largest importer of oil. Salman and MBS couldn’t have found a better way to debunk the narrative of Saudi Arabia being a maverick war monger than by engaging the Chinese president in a substantive conversation at the present juncture in the geopolitics of the Middle East to “advance the strategic integration of the Belt and Road Initiative and the Saudi Vision 2030 plan” – wearing on its sleeve its independent foreign policies and decrying its growing reputation to be a revisionist state.