September 20, 2023 | Journal of Asia-Pacific Business

Will China Replace America in the Gulf Region? Saudi Chinese Relations and Potential Obstacles

September 20, 2023 | Journal of Asia-Pacific Business

Will China Replace America in the Gulf Region? Saudi Chinese Relations and Potential Obstacles


In December 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia and held two summits: One with Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz and his son Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) and another with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The visit was designed to show America’s retreat and highlight the end of the post-WWII global order. Saudi Arabia’s presumed eastward shift was commensurate with China’s rise. This article will show that, apart from their transactional trade relations, neither Saudi Arabia is abandoning the West nor China is replacing America in the Gulf.

As the second largest economy, China can theoretically serve as the backbone of a multipolar world that replaces the current, American-led, unipolar one. And as a rising power without qualms about liberty, freedom, or human rights, China offers an alternative global order where universal liberal values are optional, making Beijing more attractive as a patron and ally to the world’s autocratic and kleptocratic governments.

China’s new world order

Xi and GCC leaders issued a joint statement that called for the promotion of “dialogue between civilizations, communication and mutual benefit between different cultures, and preservation of cultural diversity.” But cultural diversity, especially in multicultural Western countries, is not under threat. What has been threatened by the Western global order is the diversity in the systems of government. Over the past 70 years, America and the West have been trying to spread their values and to replicate their liberal democratic governments around the globe.

To counter the West calling him out for his autocracy, Xi has been promoting a new world order in which liberal democracy is not the norm, but a cultural identity. In this cultural relativism, each country is allowed to have its own system of government, even if bloody and despotic, because such would be a sovereign choice where countries decide their form of government. Having democracies of the world coexist with autocracies is, according to Mr. Xi, “cultural diversity” and “dialogue between civilizations.”

In March 2023, the Chinese president unveiled his Global Civilizational Initiative, which called on countries to “refrain from imposing their own values or models on others and from stoking ideological confrontation.”

A world order where Saudi Arabia is praised for being a G20 power, but never criticized for its human rights record, is certainly a global model that is welcomed in Riyadh. But for Xi’s model to work, China has first to become a superpower, either by replacing America on top of the world economically and militarily, or by sharing the lead with the world’s only superpower and turning the globe into a multipolar one.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington D.C.-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


China Gulf States