Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a three-day trip to Saudi Arabia from December 7-9 amid the growing hitches in the long-standing bilateral relationship between Saudi Arabia and the USA. This trip has underlined the continuously cultivating importance of the Sino-Saudi bilateral relationship and displayed that Saudi Arabia is not willing to take diktats from the United States.
Notably, President Biden warned Saudi Arabia to face consequences in the wake of the decision of the OPEC+ group announced on 5th October for decreasing oil production targets by two million barrels a day, disregarding the pressure from the US. Though Saudi Arabia insisted that the decision to reduce oil production was “purely economic” and aimed at stabilizing energy markets, Americans were not convinced. This was the latest display of tensions between the two allies, who have endured many obstructions in recent years.
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Understanding the matter better
It is interesting to note that US President Biden visited Saudi Arabia in July and met Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), despite promising to make the kingdom an international “pariah” following the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. However, Xi’s first trip to Saudi Arabia in six years gives the Saudi Crown Prince a greater opportunity to assert his influence on the international stage as an increasingly important figure in global affairs. This is President Xi’s only third trip since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and his first trip to the Kingdom since 2016.
According to Saudi media, Xi has visited Saudi Arabia at the invitation of Saudi King Salman “to bolster historic ties and strategic partnership between the two countries” while initial agreements worth around $30 billion have been signed during the bilateral summit including one involving Chinese tech giant Huawei. According to Saudi media, the deal over Huawei Technologies is associated with cloud computing, data centers, and building high-tech complexes in Saudi cities and 34 investment agreements in sectors including green hydrogen, information technology, transport, and construction have been signed.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Saudi King Salman have signed a “comprehensive strategic partnership agreement” and the Chinese leader heralded it as “a new era” in ties. These agreements will enhance trade, business, and investment relations between the two countries which have greatly deepened in recent years. Furthermore, these earnings are extremely important for Saudi Vision 2030 — Saudi Arabia’s magnificent economic diversification plan, including the futuristic city of NEOM, which is currently being built.
According to media reports, leaders from the two countries have discussed potential deals that could deeply involve Chinese firms in megaprojects that are central to the crown prince’s vision of diversifying Saudi Arabia’s economy away from oil. Those projects include a futuristic $500bn megacity known as NEOM, a so-called “cognitive” city that will depend heavily on facial recognition and surveillance technology. If the smart city project becomes successful, Saudi Arabia can anticipate its cooperation with China to further expand in several ways, especially since many Chinese tourists can visit Saudi resorts on the Red Sea.
An important feature of this trip is that Chinese President Xi has also attended the first China-Arab States Summit and the China-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh. The Saudi Crown Prince has given a lavish welcome to Chinese President Xi which is a noticeable contrast to the hushed reception given to US President Joe Biden in July.
China and Saudi Arabia are the two most important players in the oil market, Saudi Arabia is a key supplier while China is a big buyer. China buys roughly a quarter of Saudi Arabian oil exports.
The visit also coincides with intensified strains in the bilateral relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US over issues ranging from energy policy to regional security and human rights. China sees Saudi Arabia as its key ally in the Middle East owing not only to being an oil supplier rather a shared suspicion of Western countries, especially on issues such as human rights. Saudi Arabia has also been silent on the situation in China’s Xinjiang region.
The way forward
Although Washington has grave concerns about the defense and security aspects of the Sino-Saudi relationship, the severe challenge for the US, vis-à-vis the China-Saudi relationship, is that it is simply easier for Beijing to work with from Riyadh’s perspective. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia views China as politically consistent, refrains from lecturing Riyadh on issues such as human rights, and doesn’t have awkward end-user restrictions on military hardware.
According to the defence experts, despite the Chinese swelling armed forces and the establishment of a base in Djibouti, China cannot project force in a decisive and timely manner to defend the integrity of the Saudi state in the way that the US has already done in Operation Desert Storm.
Since the Saudi military relies so heavily on US assistance, training, and spare parts, it would be difficult for the Saudis to look to China to swap the United States in this field.
Consequently, Saudi Arabia’s endeavor for extending the partnership with China seems to be an effort to achieve greater leverage with officials in Washington and remind the Americans that the kingdom has other powerful friends that it can turn to in an increasingly multipolar world.
Dr. Tahir Ashraf is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan, Pakistan and writes extensively on global politics. He can be accessed at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.