Saudi Arabia has agreed to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a “dialogue partner”, state media reported on Wednesday, the latest indication of closer political ties with China.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was established in 2001 as a political, economic and security organisation to rival Western institutions.
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Besides China, its eight members include India, Pakistan and Russia, as well as four central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Iran joined SCO as a permanent member last year.
The cabinet approved the decision at a meeting on Tuesday chaired by King Salman, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.
The move would grant Riyadh “the status of a dialogue partner in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation”, it said.
Joining the SCO was discussed during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Saudi Arabia last December, sources said.
Other countries with either observer or dialogue partner status include Egypt, Iran and Qatar.
The decision followed an announcement by Saudi Aramco, which raised its multibillion-dollar investment in China on Tuesday, by finalising a planned joint venture in northeast China and acquiring a stake in a privately controlled petrochemical group.
Riyadh’s move to partner with the bloc also came less than three weeks after the unveiling of a landmark China-brokered reconciliation deal with Iran to restore full diplomatic relations that were severed seven years ago.
Long bitter rivals, Shia-majority Iran and mainly Sunni Saudi Arabia have engaged in a series of proxy conflicts in the region, such as the conflict in Yemen. Tehran has denied backing the Houthis rebels, who took control of vast swathes of the impoverished country in late 2014 pushing out the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The Saudi-led military alliance intervened in support of Hadi in March 2015 but the Houthis still remain in control of the country, including the capital Sanaa.
Riyadh has said that while it had engaged in previous rounds of bilateral talks with Tehran, the reconciliation process was jump-started by President Xi Jinping’s offer last year to serve as a “bridge” between the two Middle East heavyweights.
Xi’s role in the rapprochement raised eyebrows given Saudi Arabia’s traditionally close partnership with Washington, though that relationship has been under strain recently because of disputes over human rights and oil production.
Xi, in a phone call on Tuesday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, King Salman’s son and the Gulf nation’s de facto ruler, lauded what he called the easing of tensions in the Middle East.
In his first comments on the matter to be made public since the Saudi-Iran deal was struck, Xi said the dialogue promoted by China would “play a major role in strengthening regional unity and cooperation”.