The Saudi regime's top brass rolled out the red carpet for Xi Jinping's arrival. The Chinese president landed at Riyadh's King Khalid International Airport on Wednesday afternoon as part of a three-day official visit aimed at consolidating the growing economic and trade ties between the two countries. Xi intends to use the occasion to seal a strategic partnership agreement with Saudi Arabia, a traditional US ally in the region with which it has been working closely in recent years.
Riyadh provincial governor Faisal bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz, foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and the head of the Saudi Public Investment Fund - one of the world's most powerful state investment vehicles - Yasir Al-Rumayyan, also head of the state oil company Saudi Aramco, received the Chinese leader on the tarmac. Neither King Salman bin Abdulaziz nor Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the Kingdom, were present.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has arrived in Saudi Arabia to attend the first China-Arab States Summit. pic.twitter.com/BHBN3nR96a— NEXTA (@nexta_tv) December 7, 2022
This is Xi Jinping's first visit to Saudi Arabia since 2016. It is also his third foreign visit since the launch of COVID-19. The Chinese president previously attended the G20 and APEC summits in Indonesia and Thailand, respectively, in his first appearances on the international stage since 2020. But Saudi Arabia is the first country he is visiting for a bilateral meeting, a significant sign that underscores the strategic importance of the Wahhabi Kingdom to the Asian giant.
During his stay in the country, Xi is expected to attend two multilateral summits where he will meet with more than 30 heads of state and government from the region. He will participate in the Sino-Arab summit and the Gulf Cooperation Council summit with China, according to the Saudi state news agency SPA. The Chinese delegation is likely to hold other bilateral negotiations to conclude economic and security agreements with some of the countries attending.
Earlier, Xi Jinping will meet with monarch Salman bin Abdulaziz and Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS, the newly appointed prime minister. Neither side would give details about the nature of the meeting, although it was rumoured that Riyadh and Beijing could sign a strategic cooperation agreement covering multiple areas, from free trade to nuclear energy. Any agreement would be the ultimate boost to relations that have only grown in recent years.
Riyadh is involved in China's New Silk Road, while Beijing participates in the Vision 2030 plan aimed at diversifying Saudi state revenues. In fact, China has invested $106.5 billion in the Kingdom's economy over the past two decades, according to Janes IntelTrak data, ahead of Kuwait and the UAE. According to SPA, bilateral trade topped $80bn in 2021.
That's not all. Saudi Arabia has become China's top oil supplier. Last year, the Wahhabi kingdom supplied 17% of the Asian giant's crude oil imports. China, for its part, is now Saudi Arabia's largest trading partner. The two maintain a complex relationship that revolves around arms sales, technology transfer and infrastructure projects on Saudi soil in which Chinese companies are involved.
Saudi Arabia has always been a staunch opponent of communism, especially during the Cold War, as a key ally of the United States and guarantor of its internal stability. The House of Saud did not recognise the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government until the late 1980s, and before that it supported the government of Taiwan. The tables were turned, however, to suit its interests. Today, Riyadh and Beijing are a growing strategic partnership.
Xi's landing in Riyadh sends a clear message in a regional context marked, among other issues, by the visible estrangement between Saudi Arabia and the United States since the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House. The Saudi leadership is immersed in a reconfiguration of alliances at the regional level, convinced that it can play an important role in the multipolar geopolitical scenario that is emerging. Riyadh does not want to be forced to choose sides in the race for hegemony between Washington and Beijing.
Even less so at a time when its relations with the United States are at an all-time low following the US military withdrawal in the region, initiated by the Biden Administration and staged in Afghanistan, and the resounding disagreements over oil production and Saudi decision-making within OPEC+. Riyadh did not bow to pressure from US diplomacy in this regard, and aligned itself with Russia's interests in the midst of the invasion of Ukraine.
The Chinese president intends to take advantage of the window of opportunity with his visit to Riyadh, but Xi is aware of the difficulty of displacing Washington. The US is still a vitally important partner, especially militarily, and is not giving up the game. During his controversial meeting with MBS in July in the Saudi city of Jeddah, Biden embodied the message of the US special envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, who made it clear that 'they are not going anywhere' and that Washington 'is a vital partner not only for Saudi Arabia, but for every country in the region'.
"Saudi Arabia's strong military ties with the US may limit Riyadh's openness to a greater Chinese military presence in the kingdom, at least in the short term," explains analyst Naser Al-Tamimi at the Mercator Institute for China Studies. Xi, however, will try to make the most of the opportunity.