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President Xi in Saudi Arabia

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President Xi in Saudi Arabia

End of the Kingdom’s ‘monogamous marriage’?

President of China, Xi Jinping, recently undertook a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, where both countries reaffirmed their cooperation on global oil markets and the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. This milestone visit marked a huge development in the development of China-Saudi Arabia relations and is expected to add a new impetus to their bilateral ties in various aspects such as political, economic, cultural and tourism.
Background of visit
1. US-Saudi Estrangement
President Xi’s visit has come amid simmering tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia as Washington shifts its policy focus to the Asia-Pacific from the Middle East. Although US-Saudi relations were already turbulent due to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the controversy surrounding the oil-production cuts Riyadh championed after the Russia-Ukraine war started in February has taken tensions to a new level. Biden’s visit to Riyadh at the beginning of 2022 also failed to yield the expected positive results for bilateral relations, with both countries falling into dispute on an OPEC+ decision on Nov. 5 led by Saudi Arabia and Russia to cut oil production.
Washington’s pressure for the bloc, which includes members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and other major oil producers, to ramp up output and thus reduce prices amid inflationary pressures stemming from the war in Ukraine did not bear fruit.
Biden expressed his willingness to “re-evaluate” his country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia following the move seen by Washington as siding with Russia. The US Congress also called for a year-long suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to the step.
2. China, the Middle East and the world
The growing geostrategic rivalry between the world’s two largest economies is making the Middle East, which holds a significant share of global energy resources, a new arena for their struggle for influence. As Washington perceives Beijing as “the biggest long-term threat” to its security and shifts its policy focus to the Asia-Pacific, China is vying for increased influence in the Middle East, where the US has played a key role in shaping regional developments for many years. President Xi’s visit is a vital diplomatic contact that could signal the start of a new era.
It is uncertain whether China can fill the economic and political power vacuum left by the US decision and regional actors’ open resistance to Washington’s policies.
Beijing, which has in recent years carried out more than 200 energy and infrastructure projects in the region as part of its ongoing Belt and Road Initiative, increased its interest in the region’s vast natural resources.
China meets 70% of its energy needs through imports and is the most important buyer of Middle Eastern oil. Last year, China alone bought 27% of the crude exported by Saudi Arabia, the region’s largest producer.
Moreover, China and Saudi Arabia are negotiating for oil trade payments to be made in yuan. Implementation of this could undermine the role of the US dollar as the main currency used in energy deals.
China recently signed a deal worth $60 billion for the purchase of liquefied natural gas from Qatar, and is also increasing its energy cooperation with the UAE and other Gulf countries.
Highlights of the visit
President Xi reached Saudi Arabia on December 07 on a state visit at the invitation of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Upon his arrival at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, President Xi said, “China and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have a close relationship of friendship, partnership and fraternity, over the past 32 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between them. The two sides have continued to exchange understanding and support, and the strategic mutual trust between them is constantly consolidated. The practical cooperation between them has achieved fruitful outcomes in all fields. The two sides maintain close communication and coordination with regard to international and regional affairs.”
In their official talks, the Chinese president and the Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, reviewed various aspects of the partnership between the two countries, and joint coordination efforts to enhance cooperation between the two countries in various fields in line with their vision, and discussed opportunities to invest available resources in both countries in order to achieve common interests, in addition to discussing regional and international developments and issues of common interest and the efforts exerted in this regard.
In his meeting with King Salman bin Abdulaziz, the Chinese President said that his country sees Saudi Arabia as an important force in the multi-polar world and attaches great importance to developing a comprehensive strategic partnership with it. “China stands ready to further strengthen strategic communication and deepen cooperation across the board with Saudi Arabia to deliver for the development interests of the two countries and safeguard world peace and stability,” said Xi.
In the meeting that witnessed “a review of the historical friendship between the two countries, and ways to enhance them to serve the interests of the two countries and peoples in various fields, the two heads of state co-signed in person the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement between China and the Kingdom, and agreed to take turns to host biennial meetings between the heads of state of the two countries.
Xi and Saudi King Salman signed a series of deals, including one involving Chinese tech giant Huawei. They, in total, signed 34 investment agreements that cover “several sectors in the fields of green energy, green hydrogen, photovoltaic energy, information technology, cloud services, transportation, logistics, medical industries, housing and construction factories.”
The deal over Huawei Technologies will bring cloud computing, data centers, and high-tech complexes in Saudi cities.
Summits
During his stay in the oil-rich kingdom, the Chinese president attended the China-Arab States summit and the China-Gulf summit in Saudi capital Riyadh.
1. First GCC-China Summit
On December 09, President Xi Jinping attended the first China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit for Cooperation and Development with the Saudi Crown Prince. In his address, the Chinese President said, “We should be partners for greater solidarity. We need to further consolidate political mutual trust and firmly support each other’s core interests. We need to jointly uphold the principle of non-interference in internal affairs, practice true multilateralism, and defend the common interests of all developing countries.”
In this speech, he suggested the following priority areas to work with GCC countries in the near future.
i. Setting up a new paradigm of all-dimensional energy cooperation
“China will continue to import large quantities of crude oil on a long-term basis from GCC countries, and purchase more LNG. We will strengthen our cooperation in the upstream sector, engineering services, as well as storage, transportation and refinery of oil and gas. The Shanghai Petroleum and Natural Gas Exchange platform will be fully utilized for RMB settlement in oil and gas trade.”
ii. Making new progress in finance and investment cooperation
“China will work with the GCC to set up a joint investment commission and support cooperation between sovereign wealth funds from both sides in various forms.”
iii. Expanding new areas of cooperation on innovation, science and technology
“China is ready to build big data and cloud computing centers with GCC countries, strengthen 5G and 6G technology cooperation, build together innovation and entrepreneurship incubators, and implement ten digital economy projects in such areas as cross-border e-commerce and communications network.
A China-GCC cooperation mechanism in meteorological science and technology will be set up, and the two sides could convene a seminar on climate response.”
iv. Seeking new breakthroughs in aerospace cooperation
“China will carry out a string of cooperation projects with GCC countries in remote sensing and communications satellite, space utilization, and aerospace infrastructure. The two sides could select and train astronauts together.”
v. Nurturing new highlights in language and cultural cooperation
The two sides could hold a China-GCC language and culture forum, and compile a bilingual library for people-to-people and cultural exchanges and mutual learning.
2. China-Arab League Countries Summit
President Xi attended a wider summit with Arab League countries where Qatar’s emir, Kuwait’s crown prince, and the presidents of Egypt, Tunisia, Djibouti, Somalia and Mauritania, were among the rulers attending, alongside leaders and prime ministers of Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Sudan and Lebanon.
In his address, President Xi told Arab leaders that China would continue to import large quantities of oil from the region as well as increase its imports of liquefied natural gas. He called for the use of the yuan in settling oil and gas trade transactions. If it were to happen, such a move would weaken the US dollar’s hold on international trade while simultaneously propping up China in establishing its currency globally. “China looks forward to working with Saudi Arabia and Arab states to turn the two summits into milestone events in the history of China-Arab relations and China-GCC relations and bring these relations to new heights,” said Xi.
“This summit establishes a new phase of the relation between our countries, as it strengthens our partnership in fields that we share a common interest in and to ensure the future that our people strive for,” said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
US reaction
“The Russians Are Coming, the Russians are Coming” is a 1966 American film narrating the Cold War tension with the story of a Soviet submarine that got stuck on a sandbar off the coast of New England. “The Chinese are coming”, however, is what has become a mantra in today’s US foreign policy.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that Saudi Arabia remains a crucial US ally, but he issued a warning over China. He responded to a question by saying that the visit of President Xi Jinping is an attempt to spread Chinese influence worldwide and it is “not conducive” to 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 … 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.”
Conclusion
A grand welcome ceremony, high-level bilateral meetings and wide-covering investment agreements are among proofs that China-Saudi Arabia relations have been lifted to a new high. The visit is a milestone for China-Saudi Arabia and China-Arab states relations. It seems rare that the Arab world, a highly diverse region with countries of different levels of economic development and internal conflicts, takes a friendly attitude towards China and all-round cooperation with China. The key reason lies in the outstanding problems the world is facing today. The changes unseen in a century are evolving rapidly: the rising geopolitical tensions and the risk of global recession, the superposition of multiple crises such as energy and food, the ascent of the Cold War mentality, hegemonism, unilateralism and protectionism – the entire world is standing at a crossroads. China and Arab countries are important developing countries, and crucial political forces on the international stage, and they must strengthen cooperation.
The writer is a member of staff.

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