When the US defence secretary met the French foreign minister in 2010 to discuss how to persuade China to support sanctions against Iran, he suggested that Saudi Arabia might hold the key.
They always want to “fight the Iranians to the last American” Robert Gates told Bernard Kouchner, according to a memo of the meeting later published by WikiLeaks, but it was time for them to “get into the game”.
Thirteen years on the world has changed and new alliances are forming rapidly.
Riyadh is no longer complacently reliant on Washington to act as a bulwark against Tehran. In an increasingly multipolar world, Saudi Arabia is looking elsewhere for security partners less subject to the vagaries of election cycles and less liable to harangue it on human rights issues.
A resurgent China, meanwhile, is pursuing a more muscular foreign policy under President Xi Jinping. Far from being prodded into supporting sanctions against Iran as in 2010, Beijing today is hoping to reshape the Middle East by brokering a major reconciliation deal between Riyadh and Tehran.
The irony here is that just as US President Joe Biden makes his vaunted pivot away from the Middle East to confront China over its military and economic influence in the Asia-Pacific, Beijing has spied an opening in the Gulf.
America’s disengagement from the Middle East has been more than a decade in the making.
In the first decade of the 21st century, the region was critical terrain for the United States and to a lesser extent Britain. Washington depended heavily on Saudi oil and in return Riyadh could expect a steady supply of American weapons and a reliable security partner willing to contain Iran, its regional arch-rival. Oil was at the heart of Washington’s Middle East policy, critics asserted, even the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Foreign policy was slow to catch up
In the past 15 years, though, American reliance on Gulf oil has greatly decreased. A shale revolution has increased US domestic energy production with the introduction of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Today the US imports less than six per cent of its oil from Saudi Arabia.
American foreign policy was slow to catch up as successive administrations grappled with how to extricate the US from costly forever wars against “terrorism” with ill-defined goals and exit strategies in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The Obama, Trump and Biden administrations all took steps to downgrade the strategic importance of the Middle East, even as Washington continued to lead regional diplomatic efforts such as the push for normalisation that saw the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain recognise Israel in 2020.
Most recently Mr Biden campaigned promising to make Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, “a pariah” after the CIA concluded the crown prince had ordered the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.
In withdrawing from Afghanistan and disengaging from the Middle East, President Biden hoped to pivot to confront China and its rising military and economic influence in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
The loss of a once stalwart security partner and increasing lectures on human rights evidently left the Saudi leadership resentful and looking elsewhere to protect their interests. At the time China was looking to play a more proactive role in global affairs.
After a decade in power, in March 2023 President Xi unveiled a new 24-character slogan outlining what could become the new foreign policy mantra of “Xiplomacy”.
Entering an unprecedented third term, Mr Xi said China should be determined, proactive and dare to fight. This was a much more active formulation than former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character strategy issued in 1990. It came amid alarm in Beijing as communism in eastern Europe collapsed and emphasised securing China’s position, biding its time and maintaining a low profile.
A major demonstration of Beijing’s new clout came in February as China revealed that it had secured a deal for Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic relations, in a diplomatic coup that took Washington by surprise.
Then this week Saudi Arabia announced it was partnering with the China-led security bloc The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. In Washington, State Department spokesman Vedant Patel played down the decision, saying that it was long expected. “Each country has its own relationships,” he said on Wednesday.
China likely looms larger than the US
Riyadh’s deepening ties with Beijing reflect shifting markets for oil exports. China has become the main importer of Saudi oil, buying 1.75 million barrels per day in 2022. Cementing the relationship, oil giant Saudi Aramco on Tuesday raised its multibillion-dollar investment in China with two deals that are the biggest to be announced since Mr Xi visited the kingdom in December.
With its recent moves towards China, Saudi Arabia is signalling that “they will act to secure their own national interest as the region and the world around them changes”, said Kristian Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute.
“Mohammed bin Salman is thinking long term and assessing the world Saudi Arabia will be navigating into mid-century, and in that world China likely looms larger than the US in all manner of ways,” he said.
That calculation is a far cry from 2010, when Mr Gates sought to downplay the damage the embarrassing revelations from WikiLeaks had caused to American foreign policy.
“Governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets,” he said.
“We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation. So other nations will continue to deal with us.”
Today, though, the US is no longer the indispensable nation, at least not for Riyadh.