But there is a trend that makes this truism even truer. Riyadh has refused to criticize Beijing for its atrocities in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, where roughly 1 million Muslims languish in concentration camps. On Thursday and Friday, MBS, as the crown prince is known, will visit Beijing and meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. According to a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, the two sides will “promote the greater development of Sino-Saudi relations” and “thoroughly exchange views on areas of mutual concern in the international arena.” Xinjiang will not be on the agenda. In fact, the two men are more likely to announce they discussed holding free elections than concentration camps.
How bad is the situation for the roughly 10 million Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority, living in Xinjiang? The Chinese government has reportedly restricted Korans, beards and veils. Hundreds of thousands of Uighur families must host Han Chinese in their homes. These “relatives,” as they sometimes call themselves, spy on the Uighurs to ensure they’re not eschewing pork or alcohol, praying on Fridays or fasting during Ramadan. Because of a data leak, we know that one Chinese security firm tracks the movement of more than 2.5 million people in the region.
It’s hard to overstate the awfulness of concentration camps for Muslims in China in 2019. But perhaps it’s too much to even think that MBS would decry China’s brutality toward Uighurs. More liberal Muslim leaders such as Indonesia’s Joko Widodo have remained shamefully silent. Even those politicians in the Muslim world who speak out do so meekly. In a September interview, Malaysia’s likely next prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, blathered that “I believe we should use a proper forum to start highlighting these issues and seek this understanding from the Chinese authorities” while excoriating the treatment of the Muslim Rohingya ethnicity in Myanmar — an economy roughly 1/180 the size of China’s.
On Feb. 10, a Turkish foreign ministry spokesperson called the camps “a great shame for humanity.” In 2009, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused a weaker and poorer China of “a kind of genocide” in Xinjiang. The courage he summoned left him soon after trade relations with China improved — and he has been reserved on the issue ever since.
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.
But besides repairing some of the damage to his international image that the murder of Khashoggi caused, there is one geopolitical advantage in criticizing China’s awful treatment of its Muslims. It shows Beijing that MBS understands leverage. Beijing doesn’t need Saudi money, or its oil. It needs its silence and acquiescence. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques-elect, MBS could speak for large parts of the Muslim world. Criticizing China’s treatment of Uighurs would raise awareness of the issue throughout the Muslim world.
And so, MBS has two choices. Stand up to China. Earn praise from U.S. newspaper columnists. Help millions of Muslims. And show Beijing that you’re strong.