Article 1 August 8, 2023

Saudi’s “New Oil” Change Pushing for Multipolarity With China

New Eastern Outlook, article by Salman Rafi Sheikh , July 26, 2023

Termed Saudi’s “new oil” industry, tourism ranks very high on Riyadh’s Vision 2030 strategic plan for the country’s economic transformation away from reliance on oil as the major source of revenue. According to the plan, the Saudis aim to raise about US$46 billion annually from tourism by the end of this decade, i.e., by 2030. Saudi’s goal and China’s contribution to world tourism seem to have a perfect synergy. Before Covid, 155 million Chinese tourists spent US$250 billion world-wide. With Saudi Arabia looking to attract tourism, China becomes a natural partner. Now that China has already lifted its “Zero-Covid” policy, tourism seems to be recovering. In this context, many meetings have already taken place between Saudi and Chinese officials with regard to promoting tourism. This is one side of the story.

Saudi’s “new oil”, however, is not just about tourism, although it is a very important part of this whole economic diversification strategy. In fact, the synergy between China and Saudi Arabia – which also builds on the long-standing Saudi supply of oil to China – in tourism reflects a deeper convergence of Saudi’s Vision-2030 and China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). Both programmes involve a rhetoric of massive economic transformation.

This convergence also feeds into the broader geopolitics of a new, alternative, and multipolar world order. This convergence was most evident in China’s recently held World Economic Forum, or ‘Summer Davos’, where Saudi Arabia sent a powerful 24-member delegation. The official title of the event was ‘The New Champions’, perhaps symbolising not only China’s own rise as a global economic force, but also its role in changing the global economic order away from the West. Saudi Arabia’s presence as one of the ‘new champions’ builds on its consistent shift away from the West to the East, championing a new form of politics.

As a recent report in the mainstream Western media pointed out, Saudi’s growing cooperation with China directly “ignores Western worries.” This growth in Sino-Saudi ties is different from – rather directly opposes – the US politics of “decupling” from China or the European politics of competing with China.

The report points to two elements. First, Saudi Arabia is ignoring the Western policy vis-à-vis China that either demands confrontation (US) or advocates caution (EU). This is significant insofar as the Saudis are very willingly and explicitly following the path of strategic autonomy, giving Riyadh the flexibility to develop ties with actors that serve the purpose. This does not mean that Riyadh is actually decoupling from the US. For instance, as part of its economic transformation, Saudi’s new Riyad Air – which was announced about two months ago – gave its first order of 72 commercial jets to Boeing, an American company. This cooperation notwithstanding, Riyadh is still ignoring Western pressure over its look East policy.

This is most interestingly evident from Saudi’s decision to get 5G technology from China – a technology that the US has been trying to arrest and force-close its usage in the US and Europe to maintain western hegemony over technology.

Now, the second part of the report involves what worries the West. It is not simply Riyadh deepening its cooperation with China that really worries the West; it is Riyadh playing a crucial role in helping the principal US rival consolidate a new world order. It worries Europe as well. Even though most European states do not agree with the US politics of “decoupling” from China, they nonetheless converge with the US over the imperative of maintaining the current West-led global order intact.

While Riyadh officially denies weaning away from the US, it still projects its ties with China rooted in a “multipolar global order.” As Saudi Minister of Investment Khalid Al-Falih recently said in an interview,

This is, in a way, a multipolar global order that has emerged — it’s not emerging. China is a significant player in it”, adding that “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 … 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.”

This cooperation was at the heart of the recent China-Arab States Cooperation Forum held in Riyadh. This forum was co-hosted by China and the GCC, where both sides signed 24 different agreements worth US$100 billion. Apart from this, Saudi Arabia’s Arab-China Business Conference saw both countries making agreements worth US$10 billion. The deals include investments in as diverse areas as the production of electric vehicles, iron production, copper mining, and a US$266 million deal to develop mobile applications related to tourism, etc.

The surge in this cooperation, while it most vividly indicates growing bilateral cooperation, clearly reflects the growing Western inability to shape global geopolitics and geo-economics in its own way. For the most part, the West only reacts against these developments, making it only a reactionary actor in global geopolitics that is no longer able to claim for itself the role of an exclusive center of global politics and economy. To that extent, the Saudi minister’s above statement does testify to the arrival of a multipolar world order. It is here and Saudi is a part of that order alongside China as its major architect.