Corporate Q&A

Saudi ties assessed

Freeman appraises China’s Middle East relations

Chas_W_Freeman w

Ambassador Chas Freeman

This is a short second part to last week’s lengthy Q&A with China expert Chas Freeman. The background on his stellar diplomatic career can found in the previous issue but between 1989 and 1992 Freeman was US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Here he talks about China’s relations with the Middle East and his views on Henry Kissinger.

Based on your ambassadorial experience how do you assess what Beijing and Riyadh want from each other and where relations stand?

It is a relationship of convenience, as most international relationships are.

The Saudis developed what they regard as an unhealthy dependency on the United States. They don’t have any confidence in the United States after our failure to protect Hosni Mubarak, our protégé in Egypt, or to come to their aid against Iran when Iran and the Houthis struck Saudi Aramco facilities in their Eastern province, and they’ve noticed that the US reaction to Iranian naval operations in the Strait of Hormuz has not been forceful. And so, they have been trying for many years, not just because of the rise of Islamophobia in the United States after 9/11 but for many reasons, to diversify their international relationships.

They’ve looked not just to China, but to India, Russia, Brazil and some European countries. But European countries are hard for them to court because of the human rights agendas that their parliamentarians tend to have, so this has resulted in interruptions of contractual relationships and weapons purchases and the like.

The Chinese make no demands on the political level and they are available increasingly to undertake tasks, some of them more effectively than Western companies.

For example, in major infrastructure construction, the Chinese have become superb. Their technology in many areas is very good, for example, smart cities, which the Saudis are trying to implement.

So, this is a relationship that is basically sought by the Saudis. The Chinese deal with it carefully because they don’t want to become too identified with any country in the Middle East. They have excellent relations with Israel, as well as with the Palestinians. And they’ve managed to have good relations with the Saudis and the Emiratis, as well as the Iranians. They’ve even managed to have a decent relationship with Turkey despite Turkey’s concern about the Uighurs and other Turkic- speaking people in Xinjiang.

There’s a tendency to look at this as Chinese efforts to expand influence but actually it’s as least as much a pull from the countries concerned as it is a push from China.

From what you say, it sounds like you think that China has managed its relationships in the Middle East quite adroitly.

They have avoided military commitments so far. They have pursued a commercial agenda. They have sought friendship and commerce with all and been careful not to make enemies. This is a wise policy, I think, and it has more or less worked.

Fifty years after the Nixon-Mao meeting, Henry Kissinger – almost 100 years of age now – was invited by Chinese authorities to attend a seminar with Foreign Minister Wang Yi last month. As someone who has had dealings with him over the years, how do you account for the longevity of his influence?

He is a wise man. He began his career as an expert in world order: in his case, in the balance of power following the Napoleonic wars in Europe – the Concert of Europe, the Congress of Vienna which created it, and Bismarck, who epitomised it.

That system gave Europe a means of moderating warfare, if not totally preventing it, and lasted a hundred years. That was his doctoral dissertation and focus.

Later he became interested in nuclear strategy and that sort of thing.

He is a wise man with a tremendous knowledge of history and a careful way with words that does not usually offend those who might be offended politically. Even though there are those who find him very controversial, he is a realist and a sage. It’s a good thing we still have him around, I think.

Click here to read our extended interview with Freeman. 

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