Saudi Arabia announced yesterday that it would become a “dialogue partner” of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) — a multilateral security organization led by China and Russia. The move, reported by the official Saudi Press Agency, is several steps away from full membership. But it reflects how Riyadh is diversifying its economic and security ties, departing from a U.S.-centric approach and emphasizing Asia instead.
Indeed, on Tuesday, the Saudi Arabian cabinet — led by King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud — also approved a cooperation agreement on combatting terrorism and terrorism financing with India’s foreign intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
These developments come in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s signing of a China-brokered normalization agreement with Iran. Saudi Arabia’s deep economic ties to energy-hungry Asian powers are taking on a strategic form.
The SCO is a regional political and security bloc founded in 2001. Its original core membership was China and Russia and the four Central Asian former Soviet republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. India and Pakistan, initially observer states, joined as full members in 2015. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey, are among the nine dialogue partners.
Iran too has a foot in the SCO door as an observer state — just one step away from membership. It’s expected to become a full member this year. So Saudi Arabia is dipping its toes in a bloc that is not only led by America’s rivals — China and Russia — but includes one of its own chief adversaries.
Right now, the Saudi move is heavy on symbolism, much like the SCO itself. The SCO has been hyped as a potential Eurasian NATO or EU-like economic bloc. But the diverse composition of the organization negates its coherence as a strategic entity. With archrivals India and Pakistan both full members, the SCO is unlikely to make big moves that would change the regional balance of power.
But down the road, if Iran and Saudi Arabia join as full members, there could be some interesting optics with both countries taking part in joint SCO counterterrorism or military exercises. At the moment, the Saudis have just made a low-cost decision to remind the United States that they are now a country with options.