PRESIDENT XI JINPING’S three-day visit to Saudi Arabia underlines China’s evolving relationship with the region and readiness to fill a vacuum left by US disengagement.
China relies heavily on Gulf oil imports, while the Gulf states are realigning their international stance because they no longer view the United States as a reliable partner.
Xi was given a noticeably more fulsome public welcome by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, than that extended to US President Joe Biden when he visited in July.
During the trip, Saudi Arabia and China are signing 34 investment deals worth $30 billion covering areas such as green energy, information technology, cloud services, transport and construction. Details are sparse, but one is reported to be with the telecoms giant Huawei for cloud computing and building high-tech complexes in Saudi cities.
In the past, these all might have been classed as Belt and Road Initiative deals but that is a term less used these days as the policy is being given a lower public profile and a more pragmatic focus on resource-rich countries, such as in the Middle East.
Beijing and Riyadh also signed a strategic partnership that will include biennial heads of state meetings.
The Chinese readout of the meeting between Xi and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud referred to Saudi support for the standard list of Chinese priorities from the one-China policy to non-interference in China’s internal affairs.
Mention of Saudi support for Beijing’s efforts to ‘de-radicalise’ align with the Saudis’ muted response to the treatment of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang,
The United States’ response to the visit, that China’s increased global influence is ‘not conducive to international order, will not deter Gulf states from building stronger ties with China and maintaining relations with Russia despite US concerns.
Unlike Washington, Beijing will not raise sensitive issues such as human rights or democracy. However, closer relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council member states — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — will need careful balancing with China’s ties to their regional rival, Iran.