Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, visiting Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, made a comment on Friday about China’s right to defend itself against terrorism that has been widely interpreted as a tacit endorsement of the oppression of the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang province.
“Saudi Arabia firmly adheres to the one-China policy. We respect and support China’s rights to take counter-terrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security. We stand ready to strengthen cooperation with China,” bin Salman said, as reported by China’s state-run Xinhua news network.
The UK Independent noted with some sarcasm that “Saudi Arabia’s ruling family has portrayed itself as the defender of Muslims across the world and protector of Islam’s two holiest shrines.”
The Independent suggested this self-proclaimed duty to defend Islam has been set aside in China’s case for the sake of economic interests, and because China has been much less critical of Saudi Arabia than Western nations in such matters as the war in Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
The UK Telegraph pointed out that Uighur representatives have appealed to bin Salman and other leaders of Muslim nations for help, but so far the only significant criticism of China has come from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Imran Khan, prime minister of Pakistan, where Prince Salman has just visited, said he ‘did not know’ much about the conditions of the Uighurs,” the Telegraph noted.
Writing at the Washington Post last week, Isaac Stone Fish called bin Salman a “sham” leader because he refuses to speak up for the Uighurs. Fish also castigated the leaders of relatively liberal Muslim countries like Indonesia and Malaysia for failing to confront the Chinese, and noted with dismay that even Turkey’s criticism of China has been downgraded from accusations of “genocide” against the Uighurs to describing the Xinjiang camps as “a great shame for humanity,” now that Ankara has enjoyed a few rounds of productive trade talks with Beijing.
(Turkey has, at least, continued to call on Beijing to shut down the re-education camps and asked the United Nations to “end the human tragedy in Xinjiang,” as recently as two weeks ago.)
“If MBS called on Beijing to treat the Uighurs with dignity and close the camps, perhaps Beijing would punish Saudi Arabia by curtailing weapons sales, cutting off high-level contacts and reducing trade. The latter would especially sting, as external shocks would hinder MBS’s attempt to reduce his country’s reliance on oil exports,” Fish wrote, using the common abbreviation “MBS” for the Saudi crown prince.
Business Insider in August attributed the “deafening silence” of Muslim nations to the Uighur’s plight primarily to “money, money, money,” noting that China’s massive Belt and Road infrastructure plan gives it tremendous leverage over heavily indebted nations like Pakistan and opportunistic governments like Saudi Arabia.
Almost as importantly, several regional analysts told BI that many Muslim nations, including Saudi Arabia, have internal security problems with their own ethnic and religious minorities, so they might not view China’s treatment of the Uighurs with as much outrage as expected. Furthermore, most Middle Eastern nations are authoritarian states that wish to conduct their internal affairs without international interference, so they are willing to extend the same courtesy to China, currently the world’s most powerful authoritarian nation.