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No major change in US-Saudi relationship

By Ma Xiaolin | China Daily | Updated: 2018-10-18 07:40
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz at the Royal Court in Riyadh on Oct 16, 2018. [Photo/VCG]

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for talks over a missing Saudi journalist. The final appearance of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and columnist for The Washington Post, at the door of Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, has left the world a mystery, as well as thrown Riyadh into an international public opinion whirlpool.

On Oct 2, Khashoggi went to the Saudi consulate to get the necessary documents so he could marry his Turkish fiancé; he has not been seen since. Turkish officials have accused Riyadh of killing Khashoggi, a fervent critic of the Saudi crown prince, which the latter has vehemently denied. Yet as more evidence emerges, it seems difficult for Riyadh to deny any involvement.

But despite the harsh warnings and threats exchanged between Washington and Riyadh, this incident is unlikely to cause any major adjustments in their relations, although it will certainly have an impact on their relationship in the short term. Because the basis for the strategic alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia remains solid and mutually beneficial, their interdependent bilateral relationship will remain fundamentally unchanged.

Specifically speaking, Saudi Arabia's importance to the US shows in the following aspects. First, Saudi Arabia plays a key role in the world energy market through its cooperation with the US. As the Trump administration plans to cut Iran's oil exports, it hopes Saudi Arabia will make up the shortage, thus their partnership has become even more important. Second, Saudi Arabia remains an important ally for the US in its fight against competitors and rivals, including Iran. In particular, the US can maintain its military and security cooperation with other small Arabian countries in the Gulf region by virtue of Saudi Arabia's influence. Third, without Saudi public opinion being in its favor and without Saudi Arabia's financial support, the US alone could hardly push for peace in the Middle East. Fourth, as an important trade partner of the US and arms buyer, as well as one of its major creditor countries and key financial partners, Saudi Arabia plays an essential role in helping to maintain employment and economic stability in the US. Fifth, Saudi Arabia helps promote exchanges between the US and the wider Islamic world.

Meanwhile, the US is also essential to Saudi Arabia. First, the US provides a strong boost for Saudi Arabia's modernization and its oil industry. The US will continue to help Saudi Arabia maintain economic stability and development. And as a US protégée, Saudi Arabia can better resist Western pressure and avoid a "color revolution" that the US is prone to instigating. Third, the US is the best investment market for Saudi Arabia's huge sovereign wealth fund. Fourth, the US can help the oil kingdom improve its international discourse rights and rulemaking power. Through its alliance with the US, Saudi Arabia can maintain an international status that surpasses its overall national strength to check and balance its relations with other major powers.

Looking back at the US-Saudi Arabia relationship over the past 70 years, even major events including the Sept 11 terrorist attacks on the US in 2001 have not shaken the basis for cooperation. The incident of the missing journalist will only add a little temporary friction to the relationship. Nonetheless, the White House is under huge pressure to press Riyadh, and the US Democratic Party will certainly seize the opportunity to attack the Trump administration for overlooking another country's "bad" human rights record, especially when the midterm election is around the corner. However, the incident will not exert much influence on the midterm elections compared with the US' economic performance and growing employment.

The incident will have a negative impact on the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Turkey to some extent. The two countries have been locked in discord long before this as a result of disagreements over the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar and Syria. But even so, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have set up an investigation group to jointly look into the case.

Regardless of the boycott of the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, also dubbed as "Davos in the Desert", the incident is also unlikely to have big impact on Saudi Arabia's economy or the price of oil as long as the US-Saudi relationship remains generally stable.

Ma Xiaolin is a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. The article is an excerpt of his interview with China Daily's Liu Jianna.

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