A new era in Arab-Chinese relations?

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 13 Dec 2022

The visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Riyadh last week likely had more to do with energy diplomacy than a competition with strategic implications for the US in the region, writes Hussein Haridy


Saudi Arabia hosted two important summits with China on 9 December in Riyadh during the second official visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the country from 7 to 9 December. The first was a Gulf-Chinese summit, and the second was a summit between the Chinese president and Arab leaders including President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. The first visit of President Xi to Riyadh came on a tour of the Middle East during which he visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran in January 2016.

Things have changed since then in China and in the Gulf and Arab countries. The world as a whole has also changed since the pre-Covid era and from what it was like before the war in Ukraine broke out in February this year. 

A first difference that comes to mind is the convening of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party and the re-election of the Chinese president to a third term in office and his elevation to a status comparable to that of Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China. In Saudi Arabia, a new crown prince was chosen in Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS), who was also appointed the country’s prime minister this year.

Moreover, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions have seen important geopolitical developments in the light of the growing competition between the US and China. The US National Security Strategy released in October designated China as the main competitor of the US and accused it of “coercive” policies in the Asia-Pacific that run against what the strategy called the “rules-based international order.”

 Saudi-US relations under the present US administration of Democratic Party President Joe Biden are also not in the best possible shape due to differences, some of them major ones, in the energy sector where the Saudi and US positions do not align. Furthermore, the keen interest of the Biden administration in rejoining the Iran nuclear agreement of July 2015 if Iran rolls back its violations of the accord, and even without curbing Iran’s destabilising role in the Middle East and ignoring the Iranian missile programme, has raised alarm bells in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

The Saudis hosted a summit last July that brought together Biden and the Gulf leaders in addition to the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. But this summit, though there were genuine attempts to portray it as proof that relations between Washington and Riyadh were on the mend, demonstrated a widening gulf between the US and Saudi positions concerning regional and international developments.

The visit of President Xi Jinping to Saudi Arabia last week and his summit meetings with the Arab and Gulf leaders gained added significance from a strategic point of view against this backdrop, to the extent that some saw the meetings as a major recalibration of Saudi relations with both the US and China and to the benefit of the latter. 

Needless to say, such a characterisation misses the point. It is highly doubtful that Saudi Arabia is keen on promoting its bilateral relations with China at the expense of its historical and strategic relationship with the US. Nor are the Gulf and Arab leaders who conferred with China’s president in the Saudi capital interested in choosing sides in the fierce competition between China and the US.

For that matter, it is also doubtful that China itself is showing a greater interest in establishing “strategic partnerships” with some Gulf and Arab countries because it is aspiring to supplant the US role and influence in the Gulf and the Middle East regions. It is more likely that Beijing is engaged in energy diplomacy rather than in a competition with strategic implications for the US in the region.  

When addressing the Arab leaders last Friday in Riyadh, President Xi stressed that they should focus on “economic development… We should strengthen the synergies between our development strategies and promote high-quality Belt and Road Initiative cooperation,” he said. He added that “we should also tackle major challenges like food security and energy security.” The agreement with the Gulf states to establish a joint forum with China on the use of nuclear technology, with the latter providing training, should also be highlighted.

As far as cooperation in the energy sector is concerned, President Xi said that China “will continue to import large quantities of crude oil on a long-term basis” from the member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and purchase more LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas). He went on to say that the “Shanghai Petroleum and Natural Gas Exchange Platform will be fully utilised for yuan settlement in oil and gas trading.” Using the Chinese currency to settle oil trading with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf oil-exporting countries instead of the US dollar is probably not on the cards, at least for now and from the point of view of the Gulf countries.

The joint statement that came out of the Arab-Chinese summit expressed support for China’s position regarding Taiwan and rejecting Taiwanese independence. It also expressed appreciation for the “important efforts” made to care for minorities on both the Arab and Chinese sides. According to the statement, China affirmed its support for the Arab countries to solve “security” questions in the region through “solidarity and cooperation” and gave Chinese support for the “Arab people to explore their own development paths with their own independent will.”

All in all, the visit of President Xi and his summit meetings with the Saudi, Gulf, and Arab leaders have proven that China is looking to gain in deepening its presence and expanding its role in the Middle East and Gulf regions. Last year, it also signed an ambitious and long-term strategic accord with Iran without getting involved in a direct confrontation with the US. On the Arab side, the Gulf and Arab leaders have expressed their political will to promote comprehensive cooperation with China, while preserving intact the alliance of some of them with the US and without questioning the “partnerships” that link others among them with Washington. However, without a doubt they realise that this could be a challenging balancing act.

A spokesperson for the US State Department commented on the visit of the Chinese president to Saudi Arabia on 9 December by emphasising that the US “remains deeply committed to security in the Middle East and the Gulf region.” He added that the US’s “comparative advantage in doing that is our ability to build coalitions, our partnerships, and our ability to integrate defencive structures. All of those things are unmatched.” Citing counterterrorism, the defence of freedom of navigation, and confronting threats in the region, the spokesperson said that there was “just no comparison to the value that the United States can provide.”

The US message of dissuasion, though implicit and diplomatically formulated, as to the limits of broad Arab-Chinese cooperation will echo around the Middle East and Gulf region.

* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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