Nicosia: The three-day visit of Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Saudi Arabia last week and his talks with the Saudi rulers and other important GCC leaders, as well as the signing of dozens of agreements with Riyadh, shows that Beijing is trying to increase its influence in the region, but would not go so far as to supplant the US security role and that Saudi Arabia has been recalibrating its relations with the US and China.
In contrast to the frosty reception accorded by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to US President Joe Biden last July, the Chinese leader was warmly welcomed with pomp and ceremony when he arrived in Riyadh last Wednesday. No wonder. After all, China is Saudi Arabia’s biggest client and trading partner.
Xi’s visit was described as “a milestone” in relations between the two countries and is seen as a “snub” to Washington which has repeatedly urged Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States not to be tempted by the commercial “carrot” offered by China and to join the sanctions imposed by the West against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
The Chinese leader had talks with 86-year-old King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. The Chinese leader pointed out that the development of his country’s relations with Saudi Arabia is a priority in its foreign relations and in its diplomacy in the Middle East.
Xi and King Salman signed a “comprehensive strategic partnership agreement”. The Chinese leader said that the agreement heralded “a new era” in ties between the two countries.
MBS said that Saudi Arabia supports China’s measures and efforts for “deradicalization” and invited more Chinese companies to take an active part in the industrialization process of the Kingdom.
Later, 34 agreements were signed by Saudi and Chinese officials, covering a wide range of sectors: information technology, green hydrogen, photovoltaics, transportation, information technology and cloud services, construction of houses, logistics and medical services. The Saudi media estimate that the value of agreements signed totals about 30 billion.
In Saudi Arabia, Xi attended the first China-Arab States Summit and the China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit and met separately with nearly 20 Arab leaders. These meetings are believed to be China’s largest and highest-level diplomatic action with the Arab world since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
It should be noted that the trade between China and Arab countries witnessed tremendous growth, recording over USD 300 billion during the past ten years moreover China has consistently supported some Arab issues and particularly the Palestine issue.
In his speech at the China-GCC summit, Xi said the Chinese side is ready to work with GCC countries to strengthen investment cooperation in the digital economy and green development, and establish a working mechanism for bilateral investment and economic cooperation.
It is worth mentioning that in the not-too-distant past Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies were decidedly anti-communist and firm supporters of the United States and did not want to have close relations with Beijing. But gradually, relations became warmer, as Saudi relations with the US started to cool off when the US stopped being a major importer of Saudi oil, due to the fracking and shale revolution in the US.
When in 2019 Iran-backed Yemeni Houthis fired many missiles against Saudi Arabia oil installations, disrupting for weeks about half of the Kingdom’s oil production, the Saudis felt that the US did not defend them, and they started expressing serious doubts about the US commitment for their defence. The US paid only lip service, condemning the attacks but doing nothing substantial.
The same applies to the UAE which in January 2022 was also attacked with Houthi drones and missiles. Moreover, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE were furious with US President Joe Biden’s attempts to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, which they considered extremely dangerous.
So, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States decided to put their national interest first, show that they are not vassal states and decided not to follow obediently the positions taken by the United States. This became apparent from their refusal to apply sanctions against Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine, despite the repeated calls of the United States and the European Union, and from their refusal to increase oil production to limit the impact of the Russian oil embargo on European countries.
As the US has turned its attention elsewhere in the world and as relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states remain strained, it is not surprising that the Arab monarchies are trying to recalibrate their foreign policy and try to cement ties with China. First and foremost, they do not want to be taken for granted and do not want to be seen as slavishly following whatever decision Washington takes.
Furthermore, unlike the Biden Administration, the Chinese government never raises awkward questions about respect for human rights in countries with which it has a special relationship.
The fact that China is seriously trying to expand its influence in the Gulf and the Middle East, in general, does not mean that it is ready – or in a position- to supplant the US as a security provider in the region, or that the Saudis want to replace the US as their main security guarantor.
Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, points out the following: “The U.S.-Saudi relationship is not about to collapse. Washington is likely to remain Riyadh’s key partner in security and intelligence cooperation, and the external threat from Iran is likely to guarantee that at least one aspect of the special relationship survives, if somewhat battered. China cannot replace the sophistication and effectiveness of U.S. weapons or act as a guarantor of freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf–indeed, it’s the U.S. Navy that protects and helps secure Chinese energy supplies there.”
(Except for the headline, the story has not been edited by Siasat staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)