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 West Asia.
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 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.
Riyadh’s decision to join the bloc comes less than three weeks after a reconciliation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, hailed as a coup for Beijing, which 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 Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, for his offer last year to act as a bridge between the rivals.China’s deepening relations with the Gulf region come as the Biden administration seeks to disengage from West Asia 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.Xi laid the groundwork for Saudi Arabia to join the SCO during a visit to the kingdom last December.In a phone call with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi leader, Xi promised to make further contributions to promote peace and stability in West Asia.
Prosecutors in the Arab Gulf nation of Bahrain on Thursday have handed down yearlong prison sentences to three people for debating Islamic theology in a series of blog posts and online videos.
The three are part of a local cultural society called Tajdeed, Arabic for Renewal, that says it questions traditional Islamic scholarship and jurisprudence but not the religion itself.
The Daily Telegraph, London, and AP/PTI