Is Riyadh turning East to jerk Washington?

Published December 8th, 2022 - 08:45 GMT
Xi Jinping in Riyadh
This image grab taken from footage aired by Saudi TV shows China's President Xi Jinping (C-R) being received by officials including the Governor of Riyadh province Prince Faisal bin Bandar al-Saud (C-L) at King Khalid International Airport in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh on December 7, 2022. (AFP PHOTO / HO / SAUDI TV)

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s three-day official trip could have a significant bearing on Washington and Riyadh’s strained ties.

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived on a three-day state visit to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, his first visit to the world’s biggest crude oil exporter since 2016. The trip will see him attend bilateral meetings with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – a summit with the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the much-talked-about China-Arab summit.

Coming just a few months after U.S. President Joe Biden toured Israel and Saudi Arabia, the timing of Xi’s trip and the signals from it contain a lot for Saudi Arabia and China as well as the entire region. 

As relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States continue to deteriorate, Xi is anticipated to receive a bells-and-whistles welcome designed to strengthen ties between Beijing and Riyadh and boost China’s status as a strategic ally of the kingdom. 

Additionally, this visit will send out a strong message to key players in global politics. The visit is timely and significant because Saudi Arabia got a massive critique over its de-facto role in OPEC+, and the group’s decision to cut oil production. It was the last straw on the camel’s back regarding Saudi-U.S. relations.

China’s expectations

Beijing has always considered the Middle East a unique region that provides ample resources and opportunities – from crude and natural gas reserves to high-income financial markets and important ports for international logistics, technological investments, and arms sales.

At the same time, Beijing has also found a level playing field to develop its own geopolitical influence in the region. From the 25-year cooperation agreement with Iran, the strengthening of strategic energy ties with the Gulf states, the China–GCC free trade agreement, and technological investments in the Gulf, the region has indeed turned out to be a cradle to nurture China’s growing global ambitions. Moreover, the Middle East has an unchallenged location in Xi’s pet project, the ambitious One Belt One Road initiative. 

Not to mention the fact that due to Beijing’s increased domestic demand and rapid industrial reforms, its position changed to a net oil importer. Being dependent on Gulf oil, China has different policies towards the region than the U.S. During this visit, China may try to sign energy agreements with Saudi Arabia and other oil-exporting Arab countries under more favorable terms. Xi may also reach agreements involving the sales of strategic weapons like drones that will give Saudi Arabia an advantage over Iranian influence in the Yemen conflict.  

Significance for Saudi Arabia

Riyadh has numerous reasons to have stronger relations with Beijing related to regional and global politics. China is the top buyer of Saudi Arabian oil, and the country has purchased Chinese weapons such as drones and warplanes. Saudi Arabia, which surpassed Russia as the largest oil exporter to China, accounted for $87 billion worth of bilateral trade in 2021. 

Xi’s travel confirms that China’s influence is growing in the Gulf and allows MBS to show the U.S. that Riyadh has a confident superpower supporter, and is not desperate for Washington’s largesse. Much is at stake for the Crown Prince, and Xi’s trip could help Saudi Arabia gain respectability and credibility on the global stage. 

US-Saudi Arabia relations

In July, Biden undertook his first trip to the Middle East to attend the ‘Jeddah Security and Development Summit’. The U.S. president laid out his vision for the trip by writing a piece in the Washington Post and declared that “the main aim of this visit was to reorient – but not rupture – the long-term partnership with the Kingdom”. He added that it aimed to counter Russia’s aggression and “put ourselves in the best possible position to outcompete China through the exclusionary approach”. 

But Riyadh did not share Washington’s enthusiasm. During Biden’s visit to Jeddah, MBS even did not join the official welcoming ceremony for the U.S. president. Instead, he sent the Mecca Governor to the airport to welcome Biden and his team.  

In comments at the end of the summit, Biden told a press conference, “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran ...We will seek to build on this moment with active, principled, American leadership.” But the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel al Jubeir, criticized Biden’s arguments on China. “We build bridges with people; we don’t see one (China) as exclusive of the other,” the minister said during an interview with CNBC. “China is our largest trading partner. It’s a huge market for energy and a huge market in the future. And China is a big investor in Saudi Arabia — the United States is, of course, our number one partner when it comes to security and political coordination, as well as investments and trade between the two countries.” 

The mistrust Riyadh had for Washington had never been so pronounced. In contrast, the warmth between Saudi Arabia and China has only gotten more intense in the recent past. And Xi’s visit will significantly impact regional politics, particularly the icy relations between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. The escalating rivalry between the U.S. and China for geopolitical dominance in the Middle East and worldwide also enables Saudi Arabia to benefit from its relationships with both countries without losing either one.

Though the trip might not be a watershed moment, it will still impact regional political dynamics in the Middle East. Undoubtedly, U.S. policymakers will closely observe the trip’s outcome as it could determine the future of bilateral ties between Riyadh and Washington.

Dr Engin Koc is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations in the Bursa Technical University, in Türkiye, and specializes in Middle East politics, Türkiye’s foreign policy and China’s foreign policy. 

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