This paper is based on the first of a series of workshops on “Perceptions of Decision Makers in Gulf Cooperation Council States towards Strategic Security Ties with China,” organized by the Department of International Affairs and the Center for Humanities and Social Sciences at the College of Arts and Sciences, Qatar University, Doha, December 10, 2015. More ...

After 1949, and chiefly for revolutionary reasons, successive Chinese governments opted to stand by radical Arab regimes. Preference was given to Libya, Iraq, Egypt, and especially to the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). However, Beijing’s policies regarding the Arab world eventually became more pragmatic, chiefly as a result of China’s growing dependence on oil. Saudi Arabia also recognized that Beijing’s efforts to revise its relations with the Arab world were driven primarily by economic considerations, even if it regarded China as a potential partner on a variety of issues, including the arms trade.

Beginning in the early 1990s, high-ranking Saudi and Chinese officials and business delegations embarked on frequent exchanges.[1] Undoubtedly, the most important of these visits occurred in 2006, when King Abdallah embarked on his historic visit to Beijing, which was followed by reciprocal trips—twice that same year and then, once again in 2009—by Chinese President Hu Jintao. These and other subsequent visits culminated in the signing of a slew of bilateral agreements in 2012, including a joint effort to expand the Yanbu oil refinery.[2]

Indeed, over the past two decades, Saudi-Chinese economic relations have been transformed. Bilateral trade has grown dramatically, from a mere $1.28 billion in 1990 to about $73 billion in 2013.[3] The two countries have collaborated on numerous projects in the health, transportation and construction sectors. Today an estimated 20 percent of Chinese oil imports originate from Saudi Arabia.[4] Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has become an increasingly important market for Chinese consumer goods, including electronics, textiles and food, which accounted for most Saudi imports even if the Kingdom imported similar items from other sources too.[5]

Yet, political and security ties between Saudi Arabia and China have developed far more slowly than have their economic relations. This essay explores the security dimension of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and China, to shed light on the question of why Sino-Saudi cooperation in the security sphere has been very limited.

The Inception of Sino-Saudi Security Relations

The first concrete manifestation of Sino-Saudi security cooperation took place in 1985—five years before the establishment of official diplomatic relations—with the purchase by Saudi Arabia from China of 36 CSS-2 “East Wind” intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and nine launchers.

The deal, which was kept secret until March 1988, apparently fell to a high-ranking member of the ruling family, General Khaled bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz to see it through. In his words,  

… my task was to negotiate the deal, devise an appropriate deception plan, choose a team of Saudi officers and men and arrange for their training in both Saudi Arabia and China, build and defend operation bases and storage facilities in different parts of the Kingdom, arrange for the shipment of the missiles from China and, at every stage, be ready to defend the project against sabotage or any other form of attack.[6]

Prince Sultan, who was given the honorary title of “Father of Saudi Arabia’s Missile,” wrote a candid account of the agreement he forged, in which he confided that it was crucial to keep the deal secret from all prying eyes. Clearly, Saudi Arabia did not wish to reveal the nature and extent of its putative military efforts.

At the time, observers concentrated on various reports that the United States complained and even threatened to take punitive action both against Riyadh and Beijing on account of nascent proliferation concerns. However, what actually preoccupied Washington was the possibility that this initial sale would open the floodgates for significant quantities of conventional arms going to Saudi Arabia.

It is important to note that China was probably selling IRBMs to Pakistan and an undetermined quantity of weapons to Iran simultaneously, all of which meant that the United States confronted a China willing to proliferate—a serious and legitimate concern, at least from an American perspective.

Nevertheless, what Washington and others failed to understand, or at any rate neglected to note, was the chief motive behind Riyadh’s acquisition of the missiles, namely to offset Iran’s military advantage, especially with respect to missiles. Truth be told, while the United States had provided some advanced equipment to Saudi Arabia, these platforms were normally stripped of offensive capabilities in order to assuage Israeli concerns. It took a while for Riyadh to finally persuade Washington that both countries would be far better “served by combining pressure for transparency with a firm commitment to protect the Kingdom against Iranian aggression.”[7]

The political storm that was unleashed in Washington by the revelation of the CSS-2 transfers did not last for long as the United States authorized additional sales of vital items to the Kingdom. In the event, a significant attitudinal change was evident after 1988, as Saudi military purchases were far less contentious.

From the Saudi perspective, the value of the CSS-2 missile was not to acquire a nuclear weapons delivery capability but to leverage this purchase. General Khaled bin Sultan knew that the missile was highly inaccurate as a conventional system and informed his sovereign and other senior members of the family of that fact. Still, while he and other officials may well have contemplated a nuclear capability, they did not pursue this option at the time. Rumors circulated from time to time that the missiles in Saudi Arabia would, or could, be armed with nuclear warheads—backed by the fact that no international inspections have ever taken place to verify these claims. However, the Kingdom was not inclined to embark on a nuclear program at the time.[8]

Looking back at the CSS-2 missile deal, it is now rather clear that, from the Saudi vantage point, the transaction was much more about countering Iran and leveraging it to obtain additional benefits from its existing security ties with the United States than laying the foundation for an extensive strategic partnership with China.

China-Saudi Security Relations Underdeveloped

When the CSS-2 deal came to light, at least some observers saw it as paving the way for a more robust security relationship. Forecasts and/or fears about the eventual blossoming of security relations have never been realized.[9] The main reasons for this are: 1) the long-standing commitment by and dominance of the United States as Saudi Arabia’s security “provider”; 2) the growth of Sino-Iranian relations, which are a complicating factor in Saudi-China relations; and 3) divergent perspectives on issues where Saudi and Chinese interests overlap. The byproduct of these two factors has been Saudi Arabia’s continuing reliance on the United States as its primary security partner (even while diversifying its arms purchases and in spite of the turbulence in Saudi-US relations over the past 15 years).

In the 1990s, Khaled bin Sultan opined that “China’s rapid economic growth must soon make it a formidable military power, which we, in the Middle East, must take into account.”[10] Nevertheless, the bulk of Saudi military purchases have continued to come from Western sources. Further reinforcing Western, particularly American dominance of the Saudi arms market have been the accumulated habits of cooperation, institutional linkages, and dense exchange of trained personnel familiar with each other’s language and culture.

Since 1953, under the US-Saudi Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement and within the framework of the United States Military Training Mission in Saudi Arabia (USMTM), a slew of accords have been reached. Simply stated, nothing similar exists with any other country; and, despite recent disagreements, Saudi Arabia continues to value its special relationship with Washington, above any other. This was highlighted through concrete steps that cannot, and ought not, be neglected. Consider that from 1950 to 2006, Saudi Arabia spent over $62 billion on military purchases from the United States. And Saudi acquisitions from the United States approved between October 2010 and July 2015 reached the unprecedented figure of $90 billion.[11]

In marked contrast, even after the CSS-2s—for which Saudi Arabia paid an estimated $3.5 billion[12]—became obsolete and China developed a new generation of intermediate-range ballistic missiles, Riyadh did not purchase them.[13] While reports surfaced in early 2014 that Riyadh was poised to purchase JF-17 Thunder fighters that China and Pakistan produced jointly, no such contract has been signed.[14] Instead, Saudi Arabia has continued to rely primarily on Western powers, and especially upon the United States, as sources of military hardware—and as vital security partners.

Saudi-Chinese counter-terrorism cooperation (CT) has remained very limited because the two sides’ perspectives as to which groups constitutes “the enemy” have diverged widely. One of the many reasons why it was difficult to fathom more cooperation was Riyadh’s concern of the fate that befell more than 20 million Chinese Muslims, though Saudi leaders also knew that specific policy differences prevented a full-fledged rapprochement.[15] In fact, Riyadh was seriously preoccupied with this daunting challenge, and though its officials were aware that Chinese authorities routinely charged practicing Muslims in the northwestern province of Xinjiang with incitement, separatism, and extremism, few denied that the oppression of eight million ethnic Uighur Sunnis would only complicate future ties with Saudi Arabia.[16]

The conflict in Syria is a second issue over which Riyadh’s and Beijing’s policies have diverged. Riyadh has taken note of, and expressed displeasure at successive Chinese vetoes on UN resolutions related to the Syrian conflict.[17] Various Saudi newspaper articles castigated China’s complicity in keeping Bashar Al Assad in power, while prominent groups and even the former chairman of the Supreme Judiciary Council called for a boycott of Chinese goods.[18] A rare outburst by the usually stoic late monarch, Abdallah bin Abdul Aziz, was in full evidence when the King expressed his exasperation over UN inaction on the crisis, which highlighted the extent to which a full-fledged transformation in Damascus was, and remains, an overriding goal of the Saudi establishment.[19] Saudi leaders expressed their displeasure and suspended the Gulf Cooperation Council-China strategic dialogue from 2012 to 2013. Although a third round of the dialogue eventually was held, there have been no concrete signs of an improvement in bilateral relations.[20] In fact, Riyadh has remained adamant that the strengthening of both bilateral political as well as security ties hinges on China’s willingness to align itself with the GCC states on specific issues, including extending support to the opposition in Syria, eliminating restrictions on Uighurs and standing with the conservative Arab Gulf monarchies in their war against extremism.

It is also important to note that China’s relations with post-revolutionary Iran has been a complicating factor in Sino-Saudi relations—particularly over the past decade and especially in the context of intensified Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry and the dispute over the Iranian nuclear program. In recent years, Iran has relied on China as a shield against the imposition and tightening of UN Security Council sanctions. Towards that end, China’s well-known opposition to sanctions—as a matter of principle—helped Tehran, which Saudi Arabia as well as other GCC states noted, presumably with consternation.[21] China’s support for the tightening of UN sanctions on Iran in 2010 perhaps played well in Riyadh. Ultimately, the P5+1 diplomatic effort produced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which China, and endorsement, along with the other UN Security Council members, endorsed in July 2015.[22] However, both before and since then, Saudi Arabia has taken a much more assertive, vigorous approach to countering Iranian adventurism in the Arab world. Saudi officials are under no illusions that Beijing will provide strong support for these efforts, which reduces still further the prospects for the consolidation of a meaningful security partnership.


Although the famed Chinese Admiral Zheng He [1371–1435?] sailed with a large fleet to the Indian Ocean in the fifteenth century, and made stops in Hormuz, Aden and Jeddah/Makkah, his search for bases to expand the Ming Dynasty’s maritime objectives to protect sea-lanes that sustained the spice routes saw limited gains.[23]

More recently, and lacking the military capacity to defend its long-term interests in the Gulf, China has seemed content to let the United States promote regional stability—and ride the coattails of the United States militarily in the area—though there were limits to what Beijing could thus do independently.

Of course, while China is perhaps happy to play the spoiler against US-led efforts to isolate Iran from the international economy, having become Iran’s number one export partner, this preference points to an inherent contradiction in the Saudi approach towards the Chinese. In other words, China can deftly play-off Saudi Arabia and Iran and, presumably, remain on the sidelines, though Riyadh understood that there were no guarantees that Beijing would not deepen ties with Tehran. Under the circumstances, the Saudis are thus unlikely to risk a total disconnect with Washington in favor of China, especially since Riyadh knows how to protect its national security interests and has honed the process into an art form.

This paper represents the author’s analysis and opinions and should not be attributed to any officials affiliated with the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies or any Saudi national. 

[1] The first such notable visits included those by then-Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, who traveled to Saudi Arabia twice in 1990; Defense Minister Chi Haotian in 1996; and President Jiang Zemin in 1999. Heir Apparent Abdallah bin Abdul Aziz first went to China in 1998. Over the years, Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz and Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi also traveled frequently to China. Heir Apparent Salman bin Abdul Aziz visited China in March 2014.

[2] The Yanbu project was announced during Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s trip to Saudi Arabia in January 2012.

[3] Naser al-Tamimi, “The Ties that Bind Saudi-Chinese Relations,” Al Arabiya News, March 14, 2014, See also, Naser M. Al-Tamimi, China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance? (London: Routledge, 2013).

[4] Adam Rose, “UPDATE 1-China June Crude Oil Imports up 27 pct on Year in Challenge to U.S. for Top Spot,” Reuters, July 13, 2015,

[5] See, for example, Bryce Wakefield and Susan L. Levenstein, China and the Persian Gulf: Implications for the United States (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2011); and Daniel Morillo, The American-Chinese-Saudi-Love Triangle (Washington, DC: Institute for Gulf Affairs, August 2014).

[6] Khaled bin Sultan with Patrick Seale, Desert Warrior: A Personal View of the Gulf War by the Joint Forces Commander (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995), p. 139. Chapter 10 of this valuable volume, titled “Capturing the East Wind,” provides additional details on how Prince Khaled maneuvered both on the domestic and international arenas to secure the deal.

[7] John Calabrese, “Saudi Arabia and China Extend Ties Beyond Oil,” China Brief 5:20, September 27, 2005,

[8] For an examination of the Saudi strategic rationale for nuclear weapons, see Richard L. Russell, “A Saudi Nuclear Option?” Survival 43:2 (Summer 2001), pp. 69-79.

[9] According to a Defense Intelligence Agency study, there were at least two secure telecommunications links for private leadership contacts between Saudi Arabia and China, although few knew the extent to which these were still operational in 2015. See Robert E. Mullins, “The Dynamics of Chinese Missile Proliferation,” The Pacific Review 8:1 (1995), pp. 159-172.

[10] Khaled bin Sultan, Desert Warrior, op. cit., p. 474.

[11] According to the Congressional Research Service, signed contracts during the past five years stood at $90.4 billion, a staggering figure by any measure. See Christopher M. Blanchard, “Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations,” RL 33533, Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, September 8, 2015, pp. 12-13.

[12] Naser M. Al-Tamimi, China-Saudi Arabia Relations, op. cit., p. 27.

[13] Dan Blumenthal, “Providing Arms: China and the Middle East,” Middle East Quarterly 12:2 (Spring 2005), pp. 11-19.

[14] Zachary Keck, “Saudi Arabia May Buy Pakistani-Chinese Fighter Jets,” The Diplomat, January 24, 2014,

[15] For the data regarding Chinese Muslims, see Li Chengwen, “Saudi-Chinese Strategic Ties Reach New Heights,” Arab News, 1 October 2014, at

[16] Igor Rotar, “The Growing Problem of Uighur Separatism,” China Brief 4:8, 15 April, 2004, at

[17] See speech by Saud al-Faisal in March 2012, at; see also an interview with the Chinese special envoy on the Syrian crisis with Alriyadh newspaper on March 14, 2012, at Ghazanfar Ali Khan, “UN Veto by Russia and China on Syria Denounced,” Arab News, 26 May 2014, at See also AFP, “UN Veto on Syria Allowed ‘Brutality’ to Carry on: Saudi,” AlAhramOnline, 10 March 2012, at

[18] Glen Carey and Mourad Haroutunian, “Saudi Papers Backs Russian, Chinese Goods Boycott in Middle East,” BloombergBusiness, February 15, 2012,

[19] Simon Henderson, “Spat or Split? Saudi Arabia’s Diplomatic Anger with Washington,” PolicyWatch 2162, Washington, DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, October 23, 2013,

[20] Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg, “China-GCC Strategic Dialogue Resumes,” Arab News, 19 January 2014, at

[21] Manochehr Dorraj and Carrie L. Currier, “Lubricated with Oil: Iran-China Relations in a Changing World,” Middle East Policy 15:2, Summer 2008, pp. 66-80.

[22] The JCPOA is intended to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program can be used for purely peaceful purposes, in exchange for a broad lifting of US, European Union (EU), and United Nations (UN) sanctions.

[23] Bruce Swanson, Eighth Voyage of the Dragon: A History of China’s Quest for Seapower (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1982), pp. 38-40.

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