With Western influence in the Middle Eastern region on the wane, China is keen to fill the vacuum. During a three-day visit to the oil-rich Saudi Arabia, his first to the country in six years, Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday, December 8th, signed a “comprehensive strategic partnership agreement.”
China’s state agency Xinhua reported that King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud “extended his warm welcome to Xi for visiting Saudi Arabia again” and said that Xi’s last visit, in 2016, was “truly memorable”—a sentiment which Xi, whose welcome at the al-Yamamah Palace in the capital of Riyadh was expectedly ornate, mirrored in turn.
Both parties signed a “comprehensive strategic partnership” and went on to agree to a meeting between the two nations’ heads of state every two years.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known as MbS) also welcomed Xi in a separate meeting. The two sides reviewed aspects of the partnership between the Saudi Kingdom and China and joint coordination efforts to enhance cooperation between their two countries in various fields and in line with their vision.
On the sidelines of these meetings, Saudi and Chinese companies signed 34 investment agreements, covering green energy, transportation, logistics, medical industries, and construction, state news agency SPA reported. While no exact figures were given, it had said earlier that the two countries would seal initial agreements worth $30 billion.
In an op-ed published in Saudi media, Xi said he was on a “pioneering trip” to “open a new era of China’s relations with the Arab world, the Arab countries of the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia.” The Saudis, on their part, know well the saying of their prophet Muhammad, who oracled, “seek knowledge even if you have to go as far as China.”
The true reason for this meeting of minds is of course far more prosaic. China—the world’s largest energy consumer—which loosened its zero COVID policy after violent protests rocked the country over a week ago, is now in need of more oil as its economy is opening up again.
The oil giant that is Saudi Arabia—the world’s largest oil exporter—is only too eager to meet the demand, as it seeks to diversify its customer portfolio. But with attracting new partners comes what could be interpreted as a shunting of old ones, such as the U.S.
Saudi Arabia has traditionally been a close ally of the U.S. within the region. In the last few months, however, the relationship has turned decidedly sour. During his election campaign, President Biden portrayed Saudi Arabia as a pariah state due to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s alleged involvement in the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist with the Washington Post.
Last summer President Biden went to visit Saudi Arabia to persuade Salman to significantly increase oil production while isolating Russia but failed on both counts. . In October, Saudi Arabia went so far as to cut down production, prompting an alarmed U.S. to “methodically” reassess its relationship with the nation.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates maintain they will not choose sides between global powers and that their diversification efforts are to serve national economic and security interests.
Yet, while mutual benefit found in trade and investment is an important consideration, such agreements cannot but signal a not-too-subtle pivot on the geostrategic level, away from the U.S.-led liberal world order.
To further illustrate this in on a smaller scale, on December 8, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates released a joint statement that declared they were pivotal in mediation efforts to secure the release of U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner in a prisoner swap with Russia.
The White House, aware of Xi’s upcoming visit, warned on December 7 that China’s attempts to exert its influence worldwide were “not conducive” to the international order. “We are mindful of the influence that China is trying to grow around the world. The Middle East is certainly one of those regions where they want to deepen their level of influence,” said John Kirby, spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council.
The U.S. sees an additional security risk in the memorandum that Saudi Arabia agreed to with China’s Huawei Technologies. This would allow the firm to implement cloud computing technology as well as develop high-tech complexes in Saudi cities. Huawei had already been active in the building of 5G networks in most Gulf states.
Additionally, there is a plan to harmonize Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, its ‘energy transition’ project with the aim of reaching net zero by 2060, with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, through which it can receive investments.
The Saudi energy minister on Wednesday said Riyadh would stay a “trusted and reliable” energy partner for Beijing and the two would boost cooperation in energy supply chains by setting up a regional center in the kingdom for Chinese factories.
In the Arab world, Saudi Arabia was the largest recipient of Chinese investment between 2005 and 2020, accounting for more than 20.3% of total regional investment, worth $196.9 billion.
Xi was due to meet other Gulf oil producers and attend an Arab-Chinese summit on Friday, December 9.