Weeks after Mohammed Bin Salman and the Sheikh of the UAE both refused to take calls from Biden, some are speculating whether the Saudi regime toying with switching to the Renminbi for Chinese oil purchases represents a real change in their geopolitical position, or is just a signal to the US that they are unsatisfied with the current arrangement.
The recent spike in oil prices due to instability in world markets brought about by the Russian invasion of Ukraine has reminded many American elites about the persistence of global dependence on oil as governments around the world from the EU to North America have largely slow walked the transition away from fossil fuels in the interest of short-term savings.
Now that the cost of that short-sightedness is becoming acute, despite the reduced importance of Saudi oil in a world now dominated by American energy, the United States has already shown its willingness to forget issues regarding flagrant human rights abuses and autocracy when inflation is at play.
Saudi, though, still has not forgotten the insulting if not completely inconsequential war of words that occurred after Bin Salman allegedly ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi on diplomatic grounds in Turkey.
More importantly, there remains intractable resentment that the United States has engaged with major powers on resuming the Iran nuclear deal but excluded Middle Eastern powers who feel most threatened by the potential nuclearization of the region. Present in such talks were China and Russia, neither of whom have any interest in preventing Iran’s proliferation, while Saudi, the UAE and Israel have been notably absent from any such discussions, with their interests largely left in the background.
This is precisely what led to Netanyahu’s pressure on Trump leading to the scuttling of the same deal in 2018.
For these reasons, it seems likely that Bin Salman would like to remind the administration that there are many aspiring hegemons who can assist Saudi Arabia in pursuing its interests, some of whom are far less judgmental of other authoritarian regimes.
Further, despite the US self-image as the preeminent power in the world, its power to enforce sanctions in the world market is still dependent on those other regional hegemons like Russia and China to put Iran in its place. It therefore not only requires their support, but may find that interactions with such states are far more transactional and ask less of Saudi.
As such, it remains to be seen whether this switch has any meaning beyond Bin Salman’s evolving relationship with the world.
It signals Bin Salman’s begrudging acceptance that as long as Saudi Arabia remains an absolute monarchy, it will never truly be accepted or respected in the West. It also signals recognition that it stands to benefit from playing the global powers against each other to its advantage, as they vie for its blood-stained oil.