Saudi Arabia agrees to join Shanghai Co-operation Organisation as ‘dialogue partner’

Decision seen to tighten ties to Beijing and strengthen Riyadh’s pivot east

Saudi Arabia has agreed to join the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) as a “dialogue partner,” the kingdom’s state media announced. This decision is seen as strengthening Riyadh’s pivot east and tightening ties to Beijing.

Regarded as a neutral actor in Middle East disputes, China has cultivated relations with key players on the regional stage to ease tensions and reduce long-standing dependence on the US.

In a phone conversation with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, Chinese president Xi Jinping pledged to promote dialogue and “play a major role in strengthening regional unity and co-operation”.

The Voice of America website reported that US state department spokesman Vedant Patel “played down” the expected Saudi move. “Each country has its own relationships,” he stated.


Founded in 2001 by China, the SCO is a Eurasian political, economic and defence organisation that serves as a counterweight to US-led western organisations. The organisation covers the largest territory with the highest population of the world’s regional institutions. Its permanent members are China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, while dialogue partners are Egypt, Qatar and Iran, which has applied for full membership.

The Saudi application to join as a dialogue partner is the first step toward membership and was discussed during Mr Xi’s December visit to Riyadh, according to Reuters. Saudi Arabia has expressed an interest in joining the SOC since Crown Prince Mohammed launched his Vision 2030 drive to diversify the kingdom’s domestic economy, which has been traditionally dominated by oil.

While the SOC has, so far, focused on dialogue, senior Middle East analyst at the US-based Risk Assistance Network and Exchange, Emily Hawthorne, told the Washington-based AI Monitor website that the SCO’s main objective was to promote security and its members would be expected to take part in military exercises.

The Saudi SCO announcement coincided with the finalisation of a $12.2 billion (€11.2 billion) venture with a Chinese firm for an oil refinery and petrochemical plant in northeast China, which is expected to begin operations in 2026. This will be Aramco’s second major petrochemical investment in China.

Aramco also signed a memorandum of understanding with the southern Chinese province of Guangdong to investigate co-operation in energy, finance and research. These developments followed the March 10th Beijing-brokered pact between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic relations after a seven-year rift.

The row was caused by an Iranian mob attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran in response to Riyadh’s 2016 execution of dissident Saudi cleric Nimr al-Nimr. This deal has eased tensions between regional heavyweights Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran and could promote talks to end war in Yemen and crises in Syria and Lebanon, where Saudi Arabia and Iran have supported opposing sides.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times