RIYADH: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received President Xi Jinping on Thursday, signaling Riyadh’s interest in deepening ties with Beijing despite the US’s skepticism. The Chinese leader was announcing “a new era” in Arab relations.
Xi’s car was escorted into the royal palace in Riyadh by members of the Saudi Royal Guard riding Arabian horses and carrying Chinese and Saudi flags. There, Prince Mohammed, the de facto ruler of the oil giant, greeted him with a warm smile.
According to Saudi state news SPA, the two leaders met officially with the crown prince to “wish Xi, his delegation a pleasant stay” in Saudi Arabia.
It was a stark contrast to the subdued welcome given to US President Joe Biden in July, when the awkward visit had been overshadowed by Saudi energy policy and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
With its ties to Riyadh at an all-time low, the United States is wary of China’s growing influence and said on Wednesday that the visit was an example of Chinese attempts to influence the world and would not alter US policy toward the Middle East.
After the killing of Khashoggi, which cast a shadow over Saudi-US ties, Prince Mohammed, with whom Biden bumped fists rather than shaking hands in July, has made a comeback on the global stage. He has been defiant in the face of US ire regarding oil supplies and pressure from Washington to help isolate Russia.
Xi’s plane was escorted by Saudi air force jets as it entered Saudi airspace, and senior Saudi royals met him at the airport on Wednesday with a 21-gun salute, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.
Xi declared that he was on a “pioneering trip” to “open a new era of China’s relations with the Arab world, the Arab countries of the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia” in an opinion piece that was published in Saudi media.
“Continue to hold high the banner of non-interference in internal affairs, firmly support each other in safeguarding sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he wrote, referring to Arab nations and China.
“Treasure trove of energy for the world economy… and are fertile ground for the development of high-tech industries,” said Xi, who is scheduled to meet with other Gulf oil producers and attend a larger gathering of Arab leaders on Friday.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, president of Egypt, and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Sudanese Sovereign Council, arrived in Riyadh on Thursday.
The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states have stated that they would not choose sides with global powers and were diversifying partners to serve national economic and security interests.
China, the largest energy consumer in the world, is a major trade partner of Gulf states. As the region pushes for economic diversification, bilateral ties have grown, raising concerns in the US about Chinese involvement in sensitive Gulf infrastructure.
On Wednesday, the Saudi energy minister stated that Riyadh would continue to be Beijing’s “trusted and reliable” energy partner and that the two countries would establish a regional center in the kingdom for Chinese factories to enhance cooperation in energy supply chains.
According to the state news agency SPA, 34 deals for investments in green energy, information technology, cloud services, transportation, construction, and other fields were also signed by Chinese and Saudi companies. Although it had previously stated that initial agreements worth $30 billion would be signed, it did not provide any figures.
The Middle East specialist at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a think tank affiliated with the Chinese government, Tang Tianbo, stated that the visit would expand energy cooperation.
Tianbo wrote in an article about Saudi-Chinese relations that the “Belt and Road” initiative, Xi’s signature infrastructure investment project, complemented Saudi plans to diversify its economy under its “Vision 2030.”
She noted that “in recent years, it has upheld its strategic autonomy, resisted the pressure of the United States,” despite the fact that Saudi Arabia was an important ally of the United States.