Saudi Arabia set to join anti-West bloc with China and Russia

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit - SERGEI BOBYLEV/SPUTNIK/KREMLIN POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit - SERGEI BOBYLEV/SPUTNIK/KREMLIN POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Saudi Arabia is joining an anti-Western influence bloc formed by Russia and China, in a sign of Riyadh’s deepening ties with Beijing as the US pivots away from the Middle East.

The kingdom’s cabinet approved a plan to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a “dialogue partner”, a precursor to being granted full membership, SPA, the Saudis' state news agency, announced on Wednesday.

Formed in 2001 by Russia, China and former Soviet states in Central Asia, the SCO is a political and security bloc of countries spanning much of Eurasia and has expanded to include India and Pakistan, with a view to challenging Western influence in the region.

Iran also signed documents for full membership last year.

The SCO holds an annual summit to discuss economic cooperation and mutual security, often focusing on terrorism, separatism and extremism, though divergent interests limit the group’s effectiveness. Member states are planning a “counter-terrorism exercise” in Russia this August, though the SCO is not a military alliance.

Reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia

Riyadh’s decision to join the bloc comes less than three weeks after a reconciliation agreement was signed between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which was hailed as a major coup for Beijing, who brokered the talks.

While Oman and Iraq had hosted previous efforts to restore relations between Shia-majority Iran and mainly Sunni Saudi Arabia, Riyadh credited Chinese president Xi Jinping’s offer last year to act as a bridge between the two regional rivals as the thing that sealed the deal.

China’s deepening relations with the Gulf region comes as the Biden administration seeks to disengage from the Middle East with a view to challenging Beijing’s rising influence elsewhere.

The US has long served as a security partner for Saudi Arabia and Washington’s withdrawal has prompted its Gulf allies to diversify partners.

Mr Xi laid the groundwork for Saudi Arabia joining the SCO during a visit to the kingdom last December, sources told Reuters, as part of a plan to further increase China’s influence in the region.

In a phone call on Tuesday with Saudi de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Mr Xi promised to make further contributions to promote peace and stability in the Middle East.

China will “play a major role in strengthening regional unity and cooperation”, he said in remarks reported by state media.