As longterm partnership with US fades, Saudi Arabia seeks to diversify its diplomacy – and recent deals with China, Iran and Russia fit this strategy

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Baker Institute Fellow for Kuwait, Rice University, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

The fact that Saudi Arabia entered a rapprochement deal with Iran and chose China to broker it came as a surprise to many international observers.

The agreement, officially called the Joint Trilateral Statement, was signed in Beijing on March 11 and begins the process of restoring diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Tehran. Those ties were severed in January 2016 after protesters stormed the Saudi Embassy in Iran in the aftermath of the execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric who had criticized Saudi treatment of its Shiite minority.

As an analyst of Saudi foreign policy, I’ve seen how the kingdom’s decision to engage in this way with Iran and China is part of a broader diversification of the kingdom’s international relationships that has unfolded over the past decade. To close observers of geopolitical trends in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, the China-brokered deal fits into a pattern.

From being firmly a part of the anti-communist camp during the Cold War and closely tied into U.S.-led regional security networks in the Persian Gulf, Saudi foreign policy is now taking a nonaligned stance that has become increasingly consequential for how Saudi Arabia pursues its interests.

The relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is often said to revolve around an oil-for-security dynamic in which the Saudis provide the former and the U.S. the latter.

In reality, ties have spanned a far wider spectrum than that and have been more complicated, with periods of high tension – stemming from events such as Saudi participation in the Arab oil embargo in 1973, or the involvement of Saudi citizens in the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks in 2001.


But since the Arab Spring protests in the early 2010s, U.S.-Saudi relations have frayed, both in Riyadh and in Washington. The perception among Gulf leaders that the Obama administration abandoned former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during the Egyptian revolution in 2011 left them deeply rattled. They feared that the U.S. could abandon them just as it had done Mubarak, a longtime partner of 30 years.

This was compounded by the Gulf states’ exclusion from U.S. negotiations with Iran, initially in secret bilateral talks in 2013 and subsequently as part of the P5+1 framework of the U.N. Security Council permanent members, plus Germany, which culminated in the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.

And then in 2019, a missile and drone attack on Saudi oil infrastructure temporarily knocked out half the kingdom’s production. The attacks were linked, but never formally attributed, to Iran. President Donald Trump responded by declaring it had been an attack on Saudi Arabia, not on the U.S., drawing a distinction between their interests. Trump’s remarks, and subsequent inaction, caused shockwaves in Riyadh and other Gulf capitals as leaders began to question U.S. credibility as a reliable regional partner.

Finally, in 2021, the chaotic nature of the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul, Afghanistan, served to reinforce deeply-rooted perceptions about U.S. disengagement from the Middle East, irrespective of the situation in reality.


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