China has launched an ambitious offensive to capitalize on its role as the world’s most voracious consumer of imported energy to turn its currency, the yuan, into a global rival to the US dollar. Beijing hopes to kick-start its campaign by purchasing a 5 percent stake in Saudi Arabia’s Aramco. This would greatly please Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman, who has scheduled the state company’s first offering of a stake to foreign investors for 2018.
His target of investments worth $2 trillion is a key element in the prince’s Vision 2030 for modernizing and diversifying the kingdom’s economy. He is counting on foreign investment to rise from 3.8 percent of GDP to 5.7 percent.
China imports about a quarter of its energy needs from Saudi Arabia, although in the last few years, it has often preferred to buy from non-OPEC suppliers, for the very reason that they are more amenable than cartel members to doing business in yuan or non-dollar currency.
The Chinese calculate that if the leader of the field, Saudi Arabia, can be persuaded to abandon the dollar and switch to the yuan, other producers would jump aboard.
Beijing is not the first world power to try and usurp the petrodollar on world markets. In the 1950s, Soviet Russia made a huge effort to boost the petroruble as a plausible substitute for the American enemy’s dollar on international markets. It failed, because the petrodollar was grounded firmly in the solid alliance between the United States and the Saudi royal house at the time.
But the trade balance has shifted since then. While Riyadh and its allied oil emirates still rely heavily on ties with the United States for their security and economic stability, fast-growing trading powers in Asia are forcing them to increasingly pivot to the east to sell their oil and gas.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arrived in Riyadh last week to pursue an issue of great concern to the United States: the need to dry up funding from the Gulf nations to extremist groups. This was also part of Washington’s drive to heal the Saudi-United Arab Emirate’s rift with Qatar. The Trump administration reckons that once the three oil and gas nations are on the same page for fighting extremist groups, they can more easily be brought together on other issues.
Mnuchin arrived in the Saudi capital on the heels of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who came to try and promote détente between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, which is moving ever closer to Iran. But neither of these high-profile American officials got very far, mainly because they failed to address the issues at the forefront of Prince Muhammad’s concerns. They therefore missed the fast-growing economic ties between Riyadh and Beijing, and may therefore be taken aback when they find China turning up as a highly influential stake-holder in Aramco, a company whose very name is an acronym of the Arabian-American Oil Company.