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In this photo made available by Saudi Press Agency, SPA, Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, is greeted by Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman, after his arrival at Al Yamama Palace, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

The Saudi-Sino Military Partnership: Ambitious or Overhyped?

On June 18, Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, paid an official visit to China to meet his Chinese counterpart, Admiral Dong Jun, and discuss ways to boost the military partnership between the two states. The Saudi defense minister’s first visit to Beijing should come as a little surprise as China’s arms exports to Riyadh have increased significantly in recent years.

Although the United States has traditionally occupied the role of Saudi Arabia’s main security partner and predominant arms supplier, between 2016 and 2020, China increased its arms transfers to Saudi Arabia by nearly 400 percent compared to the previous five-year period. In 2017, Saudi Arabia acquired several Chinese Wing Loong II drones and entered into a memorandum of understanding with China to manufacture an additional 300 drones domestically. The export of Chinese-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has become a political football between Riyadh and Washington, which refused to sell indigenously manufactured UAVs to the Gulf states—prompting a frustrated Saudi Arabia to look eastward.

China skillfully capitalized on this discontent, offering to provide its modern UAVs and ballistic missile systems to Saudi Arabia to gain a foothold in Saudi Arabia’s lucrative arms market and accruing goodwill with the country’s monarchy. Indeed, blossoming relations between China and Saudi Arabia are a symptom of a broader evolution in the region’s geopolitics and are likely to continue to shape great power dynamics within the Gulf.

New Partners for a New Geostrategic Reality

Saudi Arabia expressed an interest in purchasing Chinese-made defense products in February 2024 during Riyadh’s defense exposition, and Beijing was quick to jump at the chance to grow its security relationship with one of the Gulf’s most powerful states. During this period, the Kingdom announced its ambition to achieve a 50 percent localization rate in its military procurement by 2030. China has agreed to partner with Saudi industry to grow its domestic production.

Despite a bilateral willingness to deepen defense engagement, Saudi Arabia is keenly aware that China is not capable of fully replacing the United States as Saudi Arabia’s primary security guarantor. Nevertheless, Riyadh’s strategic partnership with China offers the Kingdom additional room for modernizing its weapons platforms and strengthening its military capabilities. Of course, China’s outreach reflects its own long-term strategic goals of growing its international strategic partnerships and diminishing Washington’s influence in key theaters.

The recent geopolitical turmoil in the Middle East—the war on Gaza, the Houthis’ attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea, and escalation between Israel and Hezbollah—has had an immense impact on the Saudi-China defense partnership. Since the start of the attacks, the Houthis have targeted nearly 80 ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden with missiles and drones, disrupting global trade. Frequent Houthi missile attacks on foreign vessels and Saudi ports have prompted Riyadh to seek Chinese assistance in curbing these threats. However, China has not yet decided whether to get involved in operations against the Houthis, and Beijing has so far provided no assistance to Riyadh in this regard.

Even though Saudi Arabia is not directly engaged in counter-military operations against Houthi rebels, it has watched the deepening footprint of its arch-foe Iran with apprehension. Saudi authorities believe that China possesses strong leverage over Iran and, therefore, should be able to indirectly restrain the actions of the Houthis. However, given the limitations of China’s influence in the Gulf region and reticence to wade into the middle of  Middle Eastern security issues, Beijing is unlikely to exert significant pressure on Tehran or the Houthi government to halt the Red Sea attacks. Moreover, China’s involvement in the process on behalf of Saudi Arabia risks jeopardizing its longstanding neutrality in the region, under which it has dramatically expanded commercial ties and maintained open diplomatic channels with all sides. An attempt by Beijing to openly intervene in a contested regional issue could poison its strategic partnership with Tehran, something that Chinese leaders are loath to do.

The Best of Both Worlds

Therefore, China will likely stick with the military-technical partnership with Saudi Arabia that it has pursued thus far, focusing on technology transfer and Saudi domestic manufacturing capacity rather than security guarantees that would limit Beijing’s maneuverability. For Riyadh, Chinese defense products—namely armed drones, ballistic missiles, and anti-drone laser-based systems—are not only affordable, but also feature advanced technologies rivaled only by those from the United States. Policymakers in Washington are understandably concerned about the expansion of Saudi-China ties, but Riyadh still sources 78 percent of its arms from the United States—accounting for a whopping 19 percent of total American arms exports.

Thus far, Saudi dependence on the United States for advanced weapons has likely deterred Riyadh from acquiring Chinese-made stealth FC-31 fighter jets, JH-7 fighter bombers, and sophisticated armed UAVs. But there is no guarantee that the Kingdom will not move away from the United States over time. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s plans to boost its local defense industry aim to reduce the country’s reliance on the United States—a trend that Saudi policymakers have accelerated since President Joe Biden was elected. Concerned by Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen, the Biden administration restricted exports of some “offensive” weapons to the country in 2023. Although the exports were resumed following the announcement of a ceasefire, the experience deeply concerned Saudi policymakers, who thereafter sought alternative suppliers.

At present, America’s historical ties to the Gulf states, particularly to Saudi Arabia, remain strong—particularly given Beijing’s reluctance to face America head-on in the Gulf. Though the U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship faces significant uncertainty, it has so far held. Absent an irreparable schism between Washington and Riyadh, close security ties between the two may continue to prevent China from encroaching further.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Defense & Security, Geopolitics
Country: KSA

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Fuad Shahbazov is a policy analyst covering regional security issues in the South Caucasus. He is a former research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies of Azerbaijan and a former senior analyst at the Center for Strategic Communications, also in Azerbaijan. He has been a visiting scholar at the Daniel Morgan School of National Security in Washington, DC. Currently, he is undertaking an MSc in defense, development and diplomacy at Durham University, UK. He tweets at: @fuadshahbazov.


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