Saudi Arabia had sought a suspension of hostilities with Iran for years, first through talks held in Baghdad that eventually went nowhere. Biden administration officials said the Saudis briefed them about the discussions in Beijing, but the Americans expressed skepticism that Iran will live up to its new commitments.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia who had strong ties with former President Donald J. Trump and has helped secure $2 billion in financing for the investment firm set up by Jared Kushner, the former president’s son-in-law, has been playing an intricate diplomatic game since Mr. Biden came to office.
Mr. Biden once vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state for orchestrating the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post living in the United States. But he reluctantly agreed to visit the kingdom last year as he was seeking to lower gas prices that had been elevated in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In trying to smooth over relations with the Saudis, Mr. Biden endured blistering criticism for a much-publicized fist bump with the crown prince, who was determined by the C.I.A. to be responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment.
But Mr. Biden and his team were infuriated when, in their view, the Saudis later breached the unannounced agreement reached during that visit and curbed oil production last fall to keep the price of gas elevated. In that instance, the U.S. officials believed Prince Mohammed was siding with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and Mr. Biden threatened unspecified “consequences,” only to back off without imposing any.
Now the crown prince is turning to the Chinese. “Some folks in the Gulf clearly see this as the Chinese century,” said Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council of Foreign Relations. “The Saudis have expressed interest in joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and a good deal of their oil goes to China.”
Mr. Cook compared the gambit by Prince Mohammed, known by his initials M.B.S., to the approach of President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, who during the Cold War tried to play the United States and Soviet Union off each other. “It actually did not work out as well as Nasser hoped,” Mr. Cook said. “It could backfire on M.B.S.”