As Chinese President Xi Jinping reemerges in-person on the world stage after more than two years of avoiding travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, his visit to Saudi Arabia may be his most impactful trip yet. The Chinese leader is seeking to bolster Beijing’s ties in a strategic region where the longstanding influence of the United States appears to be on on the decline.
Upon arriving at Riyadh’s airport, Xi was immediately greeted by senior officials under the red and yellow plumes of Saudi fighter jets coloring the Chinese flag in the sky. Throughout his three-day trip, Xi is expected to hold talks with Saudi leadership and attend the debut China-Arab States Summit scheduled for Friday, a gathering likely to shape China’s strategy in the region for years to come.
Shen Shiwei, a journalist and analyst with a background in Chinese business dealings in Africa and the Middle East, said the significance of this summit for the People’s Republic cannot be understated.
“The first-ever China-Arab States Summit is unquestionably the highest-level diplomatic event since the founding of the PRC,” Shen told Newsweek. “It will be a window for China to show the world how it will further open up and reveal opportunities for deeper cooperation, especially when the world needs strong momentum to recover from the impact of the pandemic.”
As Shen pointed out, the Arab world has featured prominently in China’s extensive network of strategic partnerships established with nations across the globe. He also noted the number of Arab countries, nearly every nation in the region, that have signed up to Xi’s global Belt and Road Initiative. He called it a sign that “in theory and practice, China-Arab states have proven that win-win cooperation can be achieved.”
He noted challenges, however, in what he called “stereotypes” that “have narrowed China-Arab cooperation to only oil and gas.” But he said the true depth of partnership has already extended much further, citing his personal experience of seeing Chinese technology such as Huawei 5G and BeiDou satellite navigation flourish in the Arab world, as well as a rise in the study of the Mandarin language among Arab youth, trends he said “can only be good for the future of China-Arab cooperation.”
During Xi’s stay in Riyadh, Shen expects that “many strategic cooperation documents will be inked to solidify the foundation of cooperation,” solidifying substantive gains for Beijing as well as its regional partners.
“Why do Arab states stand firm with China?” Shen asked. “In a nutshell, it’s because of mutual respect and support, especially in their core interests.”
The visit came just under five months after U.S. President Joe Biden landed in the Kingdom in a bid to reassert a partnership that dates back to World War II, a relationship that has endured a number of ups and downs in the decades since. But tensions overshadowed the trip, as Biden had previously dismissed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a “pariah” over his alleged involvement in the 2019 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Though Biden did extend a fist bump to the powerful young Saudi royal, further discord between Riyadh and Washington later ensued.
Saudi leadership went on to support a decision in October by the expanded group of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC+) to cut oil production by some two million barrels, at a time when the U.S. leader was struggling to keep energy prices down while maintaining sanctions on Russia over its war in Ukraine. Biden vowed there would be “consequences” for this move, and his administration announced a “review” of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters Wednesday that the Biden administration is currently “having conversations” with multiple parties, including members of Congress, global partners and Saudi Arabia itself “about the partnership that we have with Saudi Arabia and how, as we’ve said since that time, we can see to it that this is a relationship that is effectively serving our interests in the best way possible.”
Price was categorical in his response when asked how Xi’s visit might impact U.S.-Saudi ties, saying the administration is “not asking countries to choose between United States and the PRC — or any other country, for that matter.”
“Our goal is to give countries the most attractive choice and to make the United States the most attractive choice in terms of what we bring to the table, to make sure that they know what that is, they know what our comparative advantage is, and that they can in turn make informed decisions about their partnerships,” Price explained.
“There is no country, I think it is fair to say, that brings more to the table when it comes to building coalitions, building partnerships, and — importantly, when it comes to the Middle East — integrating the defensive capabilities that are so important, so vital to many of our partners across the Middle East, than the United States,” he added.
When White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked that same day whether Biden felt slighted by the fanfare Xi received upon arriving to Saudi Arabia, as opposed to his own reception there, she said, “no, not at all.”
U.S. officials have been clear, however, on their intent in dissuading nations from pursuing closer cooperation with China as the world’s top two powers compete on various economic, political and military fronts.
National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday that the administration was “mindful of the influence that China is trying to grow around the world,” and that “the Middle East is certainly one of those regions where they want to deepen their level of influence.”
“We believe that many of the things they’re trying to pursue and the manner in which they’re trying to pursue it are not conducive to preserving the international rules-based order,” he said.
Shen said that Kirby’s line of thought reflected a “needless ‘Cold War’ mentality” that no longer had traction in the Arab world.
Echoing this view, Fan Hongda, a professor at Shanghai International Studies University’s Middle East Studies Institute, told Newsweek that “such competition is not what China wants.”
“No matter from the perspective of history or the current power of China in the Middle East, China does not want to compete with the United States for influence in the Middle East,” Fan said. “Moreover, an objective fact in the Middle East is that more and more countries there are vigorously pursuing independent diplomacy based on their own interests.”
On that point, he felt it was natural that Beijing’s style of engagement would be more readily accepted in the region.
“I think that a world power that is more responsive to the development needs of Middle Eastern countries is more likely to be welcomed there,” he said.
So far, much of Xi’s approach appears to be playing out as planned. While the two nations have been steadily developing their relations since Saudi Arabia first broke ties with the disputed island of Taiwan to recognize the People’s Republic in 1990, cooperation has intensified in recent years to include greater collaboration in the energy, financial and defense sectors.
“I personally think that President Xi Jinping’s visit this time is to further deepen the relationship between China and Arab countries on the basis of mutual benefit,” Fan said. “Also, I believe that through this visit, President Xi Jinping hopes to bring China more consensus with Arab countries, including economic cooperation and views on the world today.”
There is an impetus to do so from Riyadh’s end as well, according to Mohammad al-Sabban, who served as the former senior adviser to the Saudi energy minister.
“The primary goal of the meeting between the Chinese president and officials of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is to strengthen economic cooperation and build an economic partnership based on mutual benefits,” Sabban told Newsweek.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, is the leading seller of crude to China, the world’s biggest importer, and Beijing is also Riyadh’s number one overall trading partner. The pair have capitalized on their economic interactions to pursue more frequent, larger-scale projects in various fields, and Sabban said that increasing Chinese investment in Saudi Arabia would be a priority coming out of Xi’s visit.
But he also envisioned developments in the defense industry as well, part of a Saudi campaign to redraw the map of where the Kingdom gets its weapons, which, should it come to fruition, may have serious implications for a critical node of U.S.-Saudi relations.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is trying to geographically diversify the source of its arms imports,” Sabban said, “so that it does not depend on one partner or one nation, but multiple countries.”
But he emphasized that, even with the dawn of a “new international order,” Saudi’s moves did not meant that Riyadh was neglecting Washington, but rather it was “a continuation of the geographical diversification” of Saudi ties that is “not linked to the recent period” in the U.S.-Saudi dynamic.
“It’s not just China, it’s India, Russia and other nations in the world that will help the Kingdom to achieve the Vision 2030,” Sabban said. “This is what we aspire to in the coming period.”
Just as Saudi Arabia is looking to diversify its geopolitics, the Kingdom is also exploring new sources of income to ween its economy off of oil dependence, and Vision 2030 marks an ambitious project to achieve this before the end of the decade. The undertaking was first unveiled by Prince Mohammed in 2016, and the heir to the Saudi throne has since tied this endeavor to his legacy.
Mohammed al-Hamad, a geopolitical analyst and president of the Saudi Elite group, told Newsweek that Beijing could play a key role in making this vision a reality.
“The relationship with China will benefit the Saudi market and industry,” Hamad said, “in which Saudi Arabia witnesses Chinese companies’ commitment and willingness to invest and work in the Saudi Vision 2030 projects and, in the end, that will support China’s economy and its position in the Middle East.”
And he too argued that this did not mean a break in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which he described as “still strong and important for the people’s benefit of the two countries and world security.”
In fact, despite the public rift that has emerged, Hamad stated that “there is a lot of positive progress that has been made in their relations” since Biden’s visit to the Kingdom in June. He said Arab leaders were encouraged by Biden’s vow that the U.S. “will not walk away” from the Middle East.
But he acknowledged that “Saudi Arabia and the Arab world are reevaluating and watching the U.S. commitment in the region.”
Hamad said a number of countries, especially on the Arabian Peninsula, were looking for Biden to take more assertive measures in certain areas, such as re-designating Yemen’s Iran-aligned Ansar Allah movement, also known as the Houthis, as a foreign terrorist organization. Saudi Arabia has been mired in the neighboring country’s civil war for six and a half years, supporting an embattled government with no clear path to victory.
Congress voted in 2019 to end U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia over human rights concerns in the first-ever invocation of the 1973 War Powers Act, but then-President Donald Trump, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, vetoed the measure. Biden declared he would cut offensive aid to the Kingdom just two weeks into office last year and now a new push led by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders sought to put the same resolution on the current U.S. leader’s desk in a move that would likely further fray relations between Riyadh and Washington.
Against this backdrop, Hamad said “it is up to Biden to keep the U.S. in the region by respecting and focusing on the region’s interest.”
But Washington’s presence in the region remains controversial among Arab populations and their collective youth of some 200 million. A survey spanning 17 Arab populations across the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant and North Africa published in September by the Dubai-based ASDA’A BCW public relations firm showed that some 73% of this young demographic supported U.S. disengagement from the Middle East.
The same poll found 78% of Arab youth chose China as an ally of their respective countries, as opposed to 63% who said the same of the U.S. An earlier survey released by Princeton University‘s Arab Barometer and covered by Newsweek in August also showed a general preference for China among several Arab nations.