Chinese President Xi Jinping was given a full state welcome in Riyadh last week on the eve of his first visit to Saudi Arabia in six years, marking a clear shift in regional alliances despite official Saudi and Arab denials.
He held a series of summits with his Saudi hosts, the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the leaders of nearly all the Arab countries, including many who have been close US allies for decades.
Considering these alliances, the US was practically “the elephant in the room” during the meetings the Chinese president held with his Arab counterparts, especially when comparing the warm reception he received to that of US President Joe Biden when he visited Jeddah in July.
Footage of Xi’s reception in Riyadh on 7 December showed jets flying overhead with smoke trails in the red and yellow colours of the Chinese flag. On Thursday, he was taken to the royal court, where his car was escorted by horse riders carrying Saudi and Chinese flags.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman greeted him with a warm handshake, contrasting with Biden’s greeting with a fist bump and a bold and unsmiling face.
The reception Biden received was also far from the festivities held by the Saudi hosts for his predecessor and arch rival former US president Donald Trump, who joined with his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his daughter Ivanka, in performing traditional Saudi sword dances and received generous golden medals and gifts.
Ties between the Democratic US president and Riyadh had been strained even before he took office, amid a dominant belief among the leaders of the Arab countries that the US has lost interest in the region and begun a retreat process since former US president Barack Obama took office in 2008, gradually ending the heavy US military presence in the region after two lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Biden pledged during his 2020 election campaign against Republican rival Trump to seek to “isolate” Saudi Arabia and turn it into a “pariah” state over the alleged involvement of 37-year-old Bin Salman, seen as the country’s de facto ruler, in the killing of Saudi opposition figure and journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in late 2018.
Yet, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February this year, causing a sharp drop in world oil supplies, Biden had no choice but to reverse his policy and personally head to Saudi Arabia, the world’s second-largest oil producer, where he met with the Saudi Crown Prince and the leaders of nine Arab nations, the GCC, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.
However, this visit obviously failed to restore the lost warmth with the Saudi allies, especially after Riyadh rebuked Washington and went ahead with an OPEC+ decision in October to reduce oil output by two million barrels, angering Biden and Democratic lawmakers who charged that the Saudi Crown Prince was aiding the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In the scores of meetings the Chinese president held with Arab leaders, there was no talk of the need to improve their human-rights record, or pressure to convince the oil-rich Gulf nations to contribute to a global fund to finance the reduction of the effects of climate change due to high levels of carbon emissions.
The Chinese leader said China will continue to “import crude oil in a consistent manner and in large quantities from the GCC, as well as increase its natural gas imports” from the region. Saudi Arabia this year made one of its largest investments in China with Aramco’s $10 billion investment in a refinery and petrochemical complex in China’s northeast.
There were many other agreements signed on joint cooperation in several fields during the visit, ranging from technology, defence, peaceful nuclear energy, space exploration and infrastructure, all reflecting China’s growing role on the world stage and in the Middle East.
China is also eager to work with Gulf governments to bolster cooperation on 5G and 6G technology for broadband cellular networks, Xi said on Friday. US officials have repeatedly raised concerns about its Gulf allies working with Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications giant that signed an agreement with a Saudi ministry on Thursday as part of the visit.
During his visit, Xi urged his GCC counterparts to “make full use of the Shanghai Petrol and Gas Exchange as a platform to conduct oil and gas sales using the Chinese currency.” The move would bring China closer to its goal of internationally strengthening its currency and would greatly weaken the US dollar and potentially impact the US economy.
However, no announcements were made on that front, and most experts believe that such a move would probably take more time, both not to anger the US and because the Saudi currency is pegged to the US dollar. Beijing and Riyadh have not confirmed rumours that the two sides are discussing abandoning the petrodollar.
An unwritten agreement between Saudi Arabia and the US has traditionally seen an understanding that the Kingdom provides oil, whereas the US provides military security and backs it in its fight against regional foes, namely Iran and its armed proxies.
However, since Bin Salman became Crown Prince in 2017, and before the fallout with Washington over the murder of Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia has been seeking to expand its relations with new friends, particularly China and Russia. During Xi’s visit, Saudi Arabia and China released a nearly 4,000-word joint statement representing a common stand on nearly all political and economic issues.
Saudi officials said their vision for the future for Saudi Arabia, which goes beyond its current status as a country that depends solely on oil production, requires the diversification of its ties with major countries. Many officials in the country are preparing for what they believe is an emerging multipolar world, in which the US no longer plays as central a role as it has since World War II.
Saudi Arabia was keen to reject notions of polarisation or “taking sides” this week, however. Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud stressed that the Kingdom is “focused on cooperation with all parties”. He said that “getting into polarisation is very negative. We’re striving for our interests. Our interests are in the West, and our interests are in the East.”
“Competition is a good thing,” he added. “And I think we are in a competitive marketplace.” Part of the drive for competitiveness, he said, comes with “cooperation with as many parties as possible.” The Kingdom feels it is important that it is fully engaged with its traditional partner, the US, as well as other rising economies like China, he added.
“We can’t build this growth and prosperity by distancing ourselves from opportunities from one side or the other.”
Meanwhile, the Chinese president was keen to confirm that Beijing was forcefully back on the world stage after nearly three years of isolation due to its tight zero-Covid policy after the spread of the pandemic. Moreover, Xi wanted to demonstrate to the Arab leaders that the US was not the only game in town.
With the US in retreat and Russia caught up in the Ukraine crisis, China can play a constructive role in the transformation of the Middle Eastern regional order.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly