Dec 7, 2022
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, will travel to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday this week for a flurry of meetings bringing together heads of state from across the Middle East, a region where longtime American allies are growing increasingly close to China.
Mr Xi’s visit is aimed at deepening China’s decades-old ties with the Gulf region, which started narrowly as a bid to secure oil, and have since developed into a complex relationship involving arms sales, technology transfers and infrastructure projects.
When countries in the Gulf think of their future, they see China as their partner.
The economic interests shared by the two countries are clear: China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, while Saudi Arabia is one of China’s largest suppliers of oil. Chinese companies are deeply enmeshed in the kingdom, building megaprojects, setting up 5G infrastructure and developing military drones.
The two governments have also found common cause as authoritarian states willing to overlook each other’s human rights abuses. Both bristle at the idea of outsiders interfering in their domestic affairs.
During the three-day visit, the Chinese leader will take part in Saudi-China, Gulf-China and Arab-China summits, the Saudi state news agency reported on Tuesday. More than 30 heads of states and leaders of international organisations plan to attend, the report said, adding that Saudi Arabia and China would sign a strategic partnership.
The trip sends a message that Beijing’s clout in the region is growing at a time when US officials say that they want to make the Middle East less of a priority, focusing diplomatic and military resources on Asia and Europe.
The visit will inevitably draw comparisons to Donald J Trump’s arrival in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, for his first trip abroad as president in 2017. Courted by Saudi officials, he was greeted by streets decorated with American flags and an enormous image of his face projected on the side of a building.
Saudi Arabia has been a close American ally for more than half a century, and the United States remains the oil-rich kingdom’s main security guarantor, selling it the bulk of its weaponry. But the Saudi rulers have long sought to strengthen other alliances to prepare for what they see as an emerging multipolar world, with China as a key superpower.
US-Saudi ties, meanwhile, have been especially fractious over the past few years, hitting one low after another. On the campaign trail, President Biden called Saudi Arabia a pariah.
After assuming office, his administration declared a recalibration of the relationship and pressed the kingdom over the 2018 murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi — a Saudi citizen and US resident at the time — by Saudi agents in Istanbul.
That approach has caused irritation in the power corridors of the kingdom, where 37-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is both the prime minister and de facto ruler, sees himself as an ascendant global leader and views his country as a regional powerhouse that is too important to slight.
Most recently, American and Saudi officials traded barbs over an October decision to cut oil production by OPEC Plus — an energy producers’ cartel in which Saudi Arabia plays a key role — with each side accusing the other of exploiting the move for political motivations.
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