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Saudi Arabia is turning away from the West

Saudi Arabia has increased its global standing. Credit: Getty

December 6, 2023 - 6:00pm

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Saudi Arabia this week, in only his third trip outside the former Soviet Union since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, following visits to Iran and China. This choice emphasises the Saudis’ pivotal role over the coming years in determining the global currency landscape. 

If Russia wants to de-dollarise the global energy trade, and America obviously does not, then Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, will likely hold the key to whether the US dollar retains its primacy over the global energy markets. As Charles Gave and I pondered in our 2019 book Clash of Empires:

Will Riyadh accept low oil prices forever and the associated costs for Saudi society? Or will it change horse and move to accept renminbi in order to ensure access to the world’s largest oil importer, even at the risk of triggering Washington’s wrath?
- Charles Gave & Louis-Vincent Gave, Clash of Empires

The argument against this second option has long been that the US stands ready to defend the House of Saud. American protection has always been the best money can buy: the fastest planes, best radars, most dependable missile systems, and a navy that controls the world’s oceans. Washington’s main selling point to its allies is that its 800 military bases around the world will keep them safe.

Conversely, in an age of great power rivalry, China’s promise to the rest of the world is: “become friends with us, and we will make you prosperous.”

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Saudi Arabia refused to pump up its own oil production, and in doing so helped Russia keep its economic show on the road. This will have been disappointing to the Biden administration, to say the least. What’s more, each time oil has broken below $80 per barrel, Saudi Arabia has somehow managed to corral Opec+ producers to ensure that supply cuts keep the price supported, although this ability is being severely tested.

Against this backdrop, in December of last year — with great fanfare and proclamations of everlasting friendship — Saudi Arabia hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping for a three-day state visit. Afterwards, at China’s instigation, Saudi was invited to join the Brics group of non-Western economies (along with Iran and the United Arab Emirates), with Riyadh reportedly considering a Chinese offer to build Saudi’s first nuclear power plant.

Over the past year, then, Saudi Arabia has defied all US wishes and expectations to become increasingly close friends with Russia and China. More shocking still to the Washington establishment was the announcement in March that long-time antagonists Saudi and Iran were to re-establish diplomatic relations — an agreement followed two months later by a surprise visit to Saudi by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Events since then have accelerated further. On 20 November, the Saudi central bank announced it had signed a 50 billion renminbi swap line with the People’s Bank of China. This deal begs the question: what could Saudi Arabia possibly need renminbi for?

Just 10 days later, news broke that following a review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, Washington had ordered a Saudi Aramco-owned venture capital fund to sell its stake in a high-end semiconductor company backed by OpenAI founder Sam Altman.

Both events are likely to prove significant. If the US government is now essentially telling what was originally the Arabian-American Oil Company that “your money is no good here: take it somewhere else,” then policymakers in Riyadh might well conclude that the problem lies with the dollar. Hence the swap lines with China.

Even if Saudi money is not good enough to invest in US semiconductor start-ups, it certainly remains good enough to buy US-made weapons. And so policymakers around the world face a choice between American security and Chinese prosperity.

A few years ago this was no contest for Saudi’s leaders, who were deeply worried about Iran’s regional ambitions. However, to the extent that the peace shisha has been smoked with Tehran’s mullahs and the hatchet buried, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is probably wondering which now poses a bigger threat to his regime: war with Iran, or domestic upheavals like those seen during the Arab Spring of 2011?

If Iran is the bigger threat, then reinforcing links with the US is the rational course. But if domestic unrest is the greater concern, then more trade with China and more Chinese investment may well be the answer, placating local consumers with cheap cars and better public transport. 

This week Putin will find himself in a country whose leaders are increasingly facing East, rather than West. Washington and its allies don’t seem to be in a position to correct this.

This is an edited version of an article which originally appeared in the Gavekal newsletter.


Louis-Vincent Gave is the co-founder of Gavekal, a financial and market research group.

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Simon Denis
Simon Denis
7 months ago

Of course Saudi is turning away from the west. Who isn’t? They see our society consumed with self-hatred, sterile, perverted, indebted, resettled and divided; anti-democratic at home, whilst piously devoted to democracy abroad, unless it happens to clash with Islam, of course. In short, the west is rotten from the surface to the core with fourth phase Marxist insanity. Who would want to touch that? People sometimes claim that the multitudes trying to scrabble into the tottering remnants of Europe and north America are at least witnesses to ongoing “vitality”, but the truth is a good deal less flattering: they are like the predators, scavengers and diseases which batten on a carcase. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, behold the haggard, moribund west of today; yet another shining example of the left’s handiwork.

J Bryant
J Bryant
7 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

“anti-democratic at home, whilst piously devoted to democracy abroad”
That has been painfully obvious since the start of the Ukraine war. Apparently we’re fighting (by proxy) for democracy in a deeply corrupt country. I have no doubt that when the war eventually ends, the characteristics of the young Ukrainian men fighting so hard for their homeland (patriotism, aggression) will promptly be characterized as “toxic masculinity” by the Western “elites” who will busily try to tell Ukraine how to rebuild its society in the image of the West.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Quoting another absurdly exaggerated and extreme comment doesn’t make an argument! So “corrupt” countries (which most certainly includes Russia) can be invaded by their neighbours with impunity?

Western countries have many faults, and of course don’t always get on with other. However I’d most certainly rather continue to live here rather than in Putin’s gangster kleptocracy. Or Saudi, Or Iran. Or China. Etc etc.

Last edited 6 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Mangle Tangle
Mangle Tangle
7 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

They’re not turning away because they see the West as ‘decadent’, but because these autocrats see increasing difficulties going forward in controlling their subject populations. Big challenges lie ahead. Best to team up with the experts in this regard.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

This is a ludicrous caricature of the West, as I think you realise. I’ve yet heard of any right wing ranters deciding to move to the paradises of Russia, China or the Middle East.

“Anti-democratic at home” – how you work that out I don’t know. Why, even populist anti establishment governments have been elected. Or are Hungary and Italy the only true democracies because they possibly elected governments you happen to approve of.

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
7 months ago

Perhaps we will be unlucky and Cold War II will end in a direct military clash between China and the US. Alternatively, one or other could turn inwards because of some economic or political crisis. Most likely however is a rerun of Cold War I: a few proxy wars but essentially an exercise in making friends and influencing people.

This time round the two camps – loosely NATO and other US allies vs. China and friends – will be of equal economic strength and approximate technological sophistication. The game is likely to be won by whichever can win over the key “swing states” and, in particular, Saudi, Iran, India, Turkey and Russia. Currently, the score is two in China’s camp and three sitting on the fence.

The West needs to get its act together and realise that to defend democracy we will need to make friends with states with semi authoritarian tendencies. Disposing of critical journalists, turning a blind eye to ethnic violence or invading neighbours may be disagreeable traits in potential friends but, in this more threatening environment, strategy dictates we must cut back on the moral superiority and focus on expediency. Democracy everywhere would be nice; safeguarding democracy in the West is however the current priority.

The Chinese play Go where the best approach is to quietly assemble the positions necessary for decisive victory without your opponent spotting your design. The Chinese are doing rather well in this game at present.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
7 months ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

Iran is hardly a “swing state”. There is value in maintaining the high moral ground. Kennedy and Reagan did that well, and although the reality wasn’t always pretty, it was genuinely the case that the West was morally superior to the Soviet Union. That is why the divisive core vote strategy of Democratic Party presidents since Obama has been so damaging to the ability of their administrations to get stuff done on the world stage. Instead of trying to appear patriotic, morally mindful and unifying, they have weakened the US by rubbishing its history, its culture and half its population.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
7 months ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

But there is no democracy in the West to defend.
The West has career politicians who hope to be elected in order to carry out the policies of the extremely wealthy true ruling class and receive benefit/payment once they have left politics.
Voting does not actually result in any policy change whatsoever…

L Brady
L Brady
7 months ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

I see your point, it does feel like the Lib Dem’s have been in power for the last 40 years.

Martin M
Martin M
7 months ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

There can now be no question of the US and the West making common cause with Russia. Whatever happens, it must be apparent that nobody in the West can trust Russia, and probably won’t be able to for a significant portion of this century. However, can China trust Russia?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
7 months ago

The “woke” fools,( let’s just call them fools) leading the US are to tobthank for this.

Timothy Baker
Timothy Baker
7 months ago

Saudi has never been a friend to any country. They have always only been interested in their own prosperity. They are happy to be part of OPEC, a cartel that exists only to screw customers for the highest prices. Oil producers are concerned that EVs and sustainable energy will reduce them to what they once were , camel farmers and date growers, about the only good thing about net-zero.

Hans Daoghn
Hans Daoghn
7 months ago

Did Putin receive a fist bump from Mohammed bin Salman? If not, he’s a nobody.