Chinese President Xi Jinping is in Riyadh for a three-day trip, underlining the ever-growing importance of Sino-Saudi relations and a clear message from Saudi Arabia that it will not accept any dictates from the United States.
Xi’s first trip to Saudi Arabia in six years gives Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) a greater chance of asserting his influence on the international stage as an increasingly important figure in global affairs.
This week’s meetings will focus on the economic dimensions of the Sino-Saudi partnership. According to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), the kingdom and China will sign deals worth $29.6 billion. Such agreements will contribute to trade, business and investment relations between the two countries that have deepened tremendously in recent years.
China is Saudi Arabia’s main crude oil market, accounting for more than 25 percent of all Saudi crude oil exports by 2021. These export earnings will help the Saudi government maintain its “social bargain,” explains John Calabrese, director of the Middle East Asia Project, out. at the Middle East Institute, in an interview with Al Jazeera.
In addition, these revenues are extremely important for Saudi Vision 2030 – Saudi Arabia’s grand economic diversification agenda, including in relation to the futuristic city of Neom, which is currently under construction.
If the smart city proves successful, Saudi Arabia can expect to see further expansion of cooperation with the Chinese in many ways, especially considering the potential for many Chinese tourists to visit Saudi resorts on the Red Sea.
“Saudi Arabia is working with China to accelerate the digitization of the kingdom’s energy sector and the digital transformation of the wider economy,” said Calabrese. “China is also an important investment destination for [petroleum and natural gas company] Saudi Aramco, as the latter looks to expand its downstream business in Asia. The collaboration in the field of hydrogen development and sustainable energy is still in its infancy, but it can flourish.”
From Beijing’s perspective, Saudi Arabia is an extremely important source of energy that is vital to the future of China’s economic growth.
“The Chinese need to know that Riyadh can continue to be a reliable producer,” Dave DesRoches, an assistant professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., told Al Jazeera. “Especially now that it appears that Iran, which Beijing relies on for much of its oil, could scale back its ability to export as people become more concerned about Iran’s arms exports to Russia.”
There are some signs that the bilateral partnership is expanding and taking on greater security dimensions.
“The dominant ties between China and Saudi Arabia are based on commercial activities. However, many global relationships and alliances, bilateral and multilateral, began this way and then expanded into other domains, including in traditional defense areas,” said Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Middle East Program of the Atlantic Council. told Al Jazeera.
A year ago, CNN reported that Beijing supported Saudi Arabia’s domestic ballistic missile production efforts, which is a good example. Also, in certain niche areas, such as armed drones, the Chinese have made sales to Saudi Arabia’s weapons development, filling gaps that the US has chosen not to fill for Riyadh.
Washington is deeply concerned about the defense and security aspects of the Sino-Saudi relationship. “The challenge for the US, with regard to the relationship between China and Saudi Arabia, is that Beijing is simply easier to work with from Riyadh’s perspective,” Panikoff said. “It views China as politically consistent, refrains from lecturing Riyadh on issues such as human rights, and has no cumbersome end-user restrictions on military hardware.”
Nevertheless, China is nowhere near replacing the US as Saudi Arabia’s defense guarantor. There is no indication that Beijing could or would attempt to do so in the near future.
“With the Saudi military relying so heavily on US aid, training and spare parts, it would be self-defeating for the Saudis to look to China to replace the United States in this area,” said Gordon Gray, former US ambassador to Tunisia. from. , in an interview with Al Jazeera.
“China is not really a security partner for the Middle East,” DesRoches said. “Despite the Chinese expanding their armed forces and establishing a base in Djibouti – and I would say secret bases in [the UAE’s] Jebel Ali, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – they really do not have the capacity to use force in a decisive and timely manner to defend the integrity of the Saudi state as the US already did during Operation Desert Storm.”
As Gray put it, “U.S. military assets in the Gulf would help defend Saudi Arabia if its nightmare scenario — a conventional strike from Iran — materializes; the first Saudi call would be to CENTCOM, not Beijing.”
At this point, there is no reason to expect the Chinese to establish a military base on Saudi territory anytime soon. Still, that could change many years in the future, according to Panikoff, who argued that “we shouldn’t be as dismissive of that possibility over the next few decades as many seem to be.”
For now, the depth of the Sino-Saudi security partnership should not be overstated. However, Riyadh seems mainly intent on portraying its defense cooperation with Beijing as much broader than it actually is. This is largely an attempt on Riyadh’s part to gain leverage with officials in Washington and remind Americans that the kingdom has other powerful friends to turn to in an increasingly multipolar world.
Response from Team Biden
The foreign policy establishment in Washington is unhappy that the Saudis are so lavishly welcoming the Chinese leader to Riyadh. Given the relatively quiet reception Biden received in Jeddah five months ago, the difference between the visits by the US and Chinese presidents has not escaped US officials.
Nevertheless, an overly negative or overt response from the Biden administration to Saudi Arabia’s decision to host Xi could backfire on US interests.
The White House “would be wise to avoid drawing more public attention to the visit than it has or will claim,” Calabrese said. “Hyping on the ‘China threat’ and/or publicly pressuring Saudi Arabia or any other Gulf country can only prove counterproductive. If there are concrete results for the visit… a more selective approach through quiet diplomacy is likely to be more effective than a blunt public admonishment.”