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China brokered the recent deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic relations. Photo: AFP

What Saudi Arabia’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation decision means for China’s influence in Middle East

  • The kingdom is joining as a dialogue partner weeks after Beijing helped broker a deal to normalise relations with Iran
  • Diplomatic observers say the significance of the move should not be overstated, but there is scope for more cooperation in future
Middle East

Saudi Arabia’s decision to join the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a dialogue partner may help boost Beijing’s influence in the Middle East, but some analysts have warned the significance of the move should not be overstated.

The Saudi cabinet approved the decision on Tuesday in a move seen as being primarily motivated by economics, but diplomatic observers cautioned that it remained to be seen whether the SCO could help solve the Middle East’s disputes.

Earlier this month China helped broker a deal between the Saudis and Iran – which is expected to become the SCO’s ninth full member – to restore diplomatic relations.

Dialogue partners are seen as being on the periphery of the SCO behind full members and observer states, but the Chinese government offered its congratulations to the Saudis on Thursday.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said: “We are ready to strengthen cooperation with the Saudi side within the framework of the SCO to make greater contributions to maintaining regional security and stability and promoting common development.”

“Saudi Arabia’s decision to join the SCO will definitely help China expand its influence in the Middle East,” Zhang Chuchu, an associate professor at Fudan University, said.

World expects China to take bigger role in regional issues: foreign minister

“China maintains strategic partnerships with the region’s different stakeholders so that they have a more positive attitude towards international organisations and initiatives launched by the country.”

She added that there were signs that both the Saudis and Iranians had converging interests, providing room for further cooperation, but Beijing needed to find a way to handle disputes between the two.

“How to balance and coordinate the relationship between the two and how to reduce the impact of Saudi-Iranian differences on the organisation’s efficiency will be an important issue for the SCO in the future,” she said.

Jonathan Fulton, a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said: “As a dialogue partner Saudi’s membership in the SCO shouldn’t be overstated. That could change if it signals an interest in playing a greater role in the SCO, but for now it’s very much at an entry level.

“Meanwhile, the SCO’s role in the global security landscape is quite marginal at this point. We might see specific members like Russia, China or India playing a larger role in MENA [Middle East and North Africa] security affairs, but I don’t see the SCO itself taking on a bigger role as an institution.”


China, Iran pledge to deepen cooperation as both grapple with strained US ties

China, Iran pledge to deepen cooperation as both grapple with strained US ties

But Li Lifan, head of the SCO centre at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said Saudi Arabia’s decision was still an important one and the group may broaden its role.

“The SCO itself is undergoing structural reforms that will extend its functions from its initial focus on border security to economic development,” he said.

“In addition, there are regional international organisations in the Middle East, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council and the League of Arab States, so the SCO will not interfere too much in Middle East affairs for now.”

China has been Saudi Arabia’s biggest trading partner since 2018, with crude oil accounting for 77 per cent of its imports from the kingdom. The country was also the main destination for investment under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative last year.

Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, also said security was not likely to have been the Saudis’ main consideration, but the move highlighted China’s appeal in offering an alternative to the West.

How China’s Saudi-Iran deal shows Beijing’s Mideast influence

“For a lot of countries, it’s attractive to join if for no other reason than just to highlight to the West, that they have options, that the Western-driven narrative and world order is not the be all.”

Saudi Arabia’s relations with the United States have been in decline since the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the White House blamed on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Riyadh refused last year to boost oil production to help cut prices.