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Following in Iran’s footsteps, Saudi Arabia moves to join China-led SCO

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (R) welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on December 8, 2022. (File photo by Reuters)

Saudi Arabia has taken the first step to join the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), less than a month after Beijing meditated a deal between Tehran and Riyadh to restore ties and months after Tehran became a permanent member of the bloc.

The cabinet of Saudi Arabia on Tuesday approved a memorandum giving Riyadh the status of dialogue partner in the influential political, security, and trade alliance of mostly Asian countries founded in 2001.

The grouping includes India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan, with Iran set to join soon.

The cabinet meeting was headed by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz at the al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, according to the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

According to reports, the issue of membership had come up during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the kingdom in December 2022.

The memorandum comes less than three weeks after Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to resume diplomatic ties following intensive talks that were mediated by China.

Observers see the agreement as a blow to the US hegemony in West Asia and as a sign of China’s growing influence in the region.

Iran also started the process of becoming a member of the bloc a year ago and in mid-September 2021, SCO leaders agreed to change the membership of the Islamic Republic from an observer member to a full member and signed the relevant documents. Iran’s full membership is scheduled to take effect from April 2023.

Founded by China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, the SCO currently forms the world's biggest regional market with eight official and four observer members.

The organization accounts for 40 percent of the world's population and 28 percent of the global gross domestic product (GDP).

Addressing the 22nd Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in the Uzbek city of Samarkand in September 2021, Iranian President Ebrahim Raeisi said the world had entered a new era when hegemony and unilateralism were declining.

“The international order is shifting toward multilateralism and redistribution of power in favor of independent states,” he said, adding that the SCO and its governing spirit of mutual trust, common interests, equality, mutual consultation, respect for cultural diversity and common development were key tools for maintaining peace in the 21st century.

Saudi Arabia’s decision to join the block will take its interest further east. Beijing is Riyadh’s largest trading partner with bilateral trade worth $87.3 billion in 2021.

In a recent announcement, Saudi state-owned Aramco revealed a joint venture to build a refinery and petrochemical complex in Panjin in northeast China, alongside partners Norinco and the Panjin Xincheng Industrial Group.

Riyadh also has close ties with Russia as the two are among the leading oil producers of the OPEC+ coalition.

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