Chinese President Xi Jinping is being courted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia. Both countries are getting closer and closer. But there is a problem.
- China’s President Xi Jinping wants to take advantage of the tense relationship between Saudi Arabia and the USA and is launching a charm offensive with the sheikhs.
- But it won’t go that smoothly for Xi. Because China also stands by Iran – the arch-enemy of the Saudis.
- This text lies IPPEN.MEDIA as part of a cooperation with China.Table Professional Briefing before – first published him China.Table on December 9, 2022.
Riyadh – China’s head of state and party leader Xi Jinping traveled to Saudi Arabia for three days – and launched his largest diplomatic offensive to date in the Arab world. After arriving on Wednesday, Xi met Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman on Thursday. On Friday, Xi will also attend the Gulf Cooperation Council summit with six countries in the region.
It is a strategic visit: in times of the Ukraine war and a global energy crisis, energy supplies are of course high on the agenda. Xi Jinping also wants to try to geopolitically capitalize on the current tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United States. And new topics such as digitization, artificial intelligence as well as security and military technology have also been added. As the Saudi news agency SPA reports, a total of 34 agreements were signed on Wednesday alone. 20 other agreements worth the equivalent of 28 billion euros are to be added. They include:
- green hydrogen,
- information technology,
- cloud services,
- the medical industry,
- and housing construction.
Saudi Arabia is China’s main crude oil supplier
According to experts, the oil business has brought the two countries closer together. “Saudi Arabia has become China’s largest trading partner in the Middle East and North Africa and China’s main supplier of crude oil,” said Naser al-Tamimi, Arabia expert at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies ISPI. “China’s oil imports from the Gulf States have soared to more than four million barrels a day this year,” al-Tamimi said. That accounts for more than 42 percent of China’s total crude oil imports.
In addition, China wants to link its Belt and Road Initiative more closely with the region. Conversely, Saudi Arabia sees the new economic power as a welcome alternative to the USA. According to Al-Tamimi, China’s political influence is therefore also increasing. “The Gulf States see China as an emerging superpower. It is essential for them to maintain strategic relations with such a state,” explains the scientist.
Saudi Arabia is traditionally a close ally of the United States. But the relationship between Riyadh and Washington has suffered a lot recently – and Xi wants to fill the gap that is emerging. US President Joe Biden first described the Saudi crown prince as a “scoundrel” for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And now the oil-exporting countries led by Riyadh and Moscow have also cut back their oil production – despite a massive international price increase.
Tensions between Riyadh and Washington
Biden tried to smooth things over with a visit to Riyadh in July, but the US President was not granted anything more than a chummy fist bump with MBS, as Prince Mohammed bin Salman is also known. Biden must have noticed that, too, when he said: “We will not go away and leave a vacuum that can be filled by China, Russia or Iran.” But that is exactly what Xi Jinping is trying to do now. The timing shows how important Xi’s visit to Riyadh is: He’s under massive pressure at home, and last week there were protests across the country against his strict zero-Covid policy.
In Riyadh, he finds open arms. The purple carpet was rolled out for the Chinese leader at the airport on Wednesday. Crown Prince bin Salman received him on Thursday in the magnificent royal residence, the Jamamah Palace.
Gedaliah Afterman isn’t surprised. “When Gulf countries think about their future, they see China as a key partner,” says the Asia director at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy in Israel. Unlike any other player, China is uniquely positioned to serve as a long-term partner, buying its oil, building its cities, including providing the technology to make them smart. “At the same time, MBS will try to use a good connection with Beijing to establish Saudi Arabia as an international player. Saudi Arabia is using the opportunity to signal to the US that Riyadh has other options.”
Human rights are not the problem, but Iran is
In any case, the Saudi royal family sees China as a more pleasant partner compared to Western states: Xi will not demand compliance with human rights in Riyadh, nor will he call for the fight against corruption and nepotism. In the case of the Khashoggi murder, Beijing also accepts the official explanation that the killing was the result of an unauthorized operation. In return, not a word has come from Saudi Arabia criticizing China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
But Riyadh will not completely turn away from Washington in favor of Beijing. “While Gulf countries hope to gain economic and diplomatic benefits from a greater role for China in the Middle East, they know they must balance such long-term benefits with the immediate need not to alienate the United States,” Naser al said -Tamimi.
Because there is a big problem between China and Saudi Arabia: how to deal with Iran. While China is also increasingly ensnaring the regime in Tehran, there is a rivalry with Saudi Arabia for regional dominance as well as religious and ideological hostility. And here it is the USA, which is currently so unpopular, that guarantees military security for the Saudi royal family. Riyadh will not want to do without that.
This article appeared in the newsletter on December 9, 2022 China.Table Professional Briefing – as part of a cooperation, it is now also available to the readers of the IPPEN.MEDIA portals.