Chinese President Xi Jinping is welcomed by Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on December 8, 2022.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is welcomed by Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on December 8, 2022. Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Saudi-China Deal Tells Us What Autocracies Want From Each Other

Biden’s blunt democracy-vs.-autocracy rhetoric may be pushing U.S. security partners toward Beijing.

The new strategic-partnership agreement between China and Saudi Arabia illustrates how autocracies are finding common cause in resisting Western pressure on human rights, even if they sometimes find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict. 

The agreement—between China, which is aligned with Russia, and Saudi Arabia, a bitter rival of Iran—was signed the same week that White House and Pentagon officials warned of growing military ties between Moscow and Tehran.

But Beijing and Riyadh’s mutual interest can be seen in  the memorandum of understanding that will lead Chinese telecom giant Huawei  to provide the Saudi Arabian government with cloud computing capabilities and other IT services. The United States has long warned that Huawei products could enable the Chinese government to steal information from their users. But the Saudi government has few other options for technology, which it uses to track dissent inside and outside of the country. It’s the sort of thing that Western technology companies try to avoid, out of fear of public backlash. China meanwhile sees Saudi Arabia as a potential source of funding and fuel.

But China wants more than IT purchase orders; it wants venture capital, said Greg Allen, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Governance Project and a senior fellow in the Strategic Technologies Program at CSIS. 

“One important aspect of China’s overtures toward Saudi Arabia is China’s concern that United States venture capital investments—which have been important sources of capital and expertise for China’s technology sector—are drying up. The U.S. is currently considering new restrictions on outbound investments toward China. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has been plowing massive investments into technology companies in an attempt to diversify the Saudi economy away from fossil fuels, and China likely is exploring whether Saudi Arabia can help replace the U.S. as an investor. However, Saudi technology investments have a mixed track record at best.” 

U.S. President Joe Biden and other administration officials have framed the future of foreign policy as a competition between democratic and nondemocratic governments. While the Biden administration and Western leaders have shunned both Russia and China, Biden has been more coy in his dealings with Saudi Arabia, alternatively warm and critical, an awkward approach epitomized by the “fist bump” he shared in July with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

As last month’s G-20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia, the Saudi prince and China’s leader Xi Jinping “chatted nonstop through interpreters throughout the dinner,” recalled Matt Kroenig, deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Still, Kroenig said, the China-Saudi partnership will be limited by the very nature of autocracy. 

“While authoritarian leaders are working more closely together, there will be limits to their ability to cooperate,” he said. “Dictators are not reliable allies and none of the recent arrangements are likely to become as deep or trusting as, for example, the U.S.-UK relationship.”

Kroenig added that U.S. statements have helped push China and Saudi Arabia together.

“The Biden administration wanted to punish Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s death and the war in Yemen, so they tried to isolate it and characterize it as a pariah state. It is understandable that the Saudis are trying to diversify partnerships if they see the United States as unreliable,” he said.

More broadly, he said, “While the democracy-vs.-autocracy framework makes for a good bumper sticker and does distinguish the United States and its closest allies from revisionist autocracies like Russia and China, there is a gray area concerning other autocracies like the Gulf monarchies. It’s possible that the Biden administration’s blunt democracy-vs.-autocracy rhetoric may have helped push Saudi Arabia toward China.”

Not every U.S. ally is a democracy, CSIS’ Allen said.

“The United States has to balance emphasizing issues that help draw it closer to European and other allies vs. emphasizing issues that might help reduce the risk of China increasing its influence among some U.S. allies and partners.” 

The U.S. has taken some steps to better manage that messiness. Said Kroenig, the new National Security Strategy released in October provided “helpful clarity and nuance regarding the administration’s democracy-vs.-autocracy framing, saying that the real problem is revisionist autocracies like Russia, China, and Iran, rather than all autocracies.”