Xi's Saudi Arabia visit is not a slight on the US, analysts say

Trip mirrors recent visit by US President Joe Biden that portrayed Washington's commitment to kingdom and region

Chinese and Saudi Arabia's flags fly side by side ahead of Xi Jinping's visit to Riyadh. AFP
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Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday should not be seen as a challenge to the US after Joe Biden's visit earlier this year, analysts said.

Mr Xi arrived in Riyadh for a two-day state visit aimed at bolstering Beijing’s relations with Saudi Arabia. He is expected to meet senior Saudi Arabian officials including King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

A China-Arab summit is set to be held as well as a China-Gulf conference in the capital Riyadh that regional leaders will attend in person.

The US is watching the growing relations between Riyadh and Beijing as tensions have heightened between the kingdom and Washington over a number of issues from energy policy and regional security.

Despite this, analysts believe the visit is not intended to send a message to Washington but is merely a "coincidence".

"Saudi Arabia isn't trying to spite the US with President Xi's visit," Anna Jacobs, the Crisis Group’s senior Gulf analyst, told The National. "The US remains the most important external security partner for Saudi Arabia."

However, Riyadh has been clear in saying that "Saudi Arabia is navigating an increasingly multipolar world order, and Riyadh is seeking to diversify its economic and political relationships", she said.

Mr Biden, who visited the kingdom in July, aimed to send a message that the US remains committed to the region in the long term.

Saudi Arabia's deepening of economic and political relations with China does not "equate to sidelining the partnership with the US. Saudi Arabia's leadership is focused on the success of Saudi Vision 2030," Ms Jacobs said.

It aims to deepen ties with global powers rather than diminishing relations with its US ally, she said.

Xi Jinping's visit to the kingdom

Chinese and Saudi Arabian flags were flown across Riyadh on Wednesday ahead of Mr Xi's visit to the Saudi capital.

“I think Mr Xi's visit to Saudi Arabia is more about setting the stage for greater political and economic ties with China, a stated-goal of both Chinese and Saudi leaders,” Ms Jacobs said.

The Chinese President’s trip is about “celebrating the future potential of the Saudi-China relationship and the Middle East-China relationship more broadly”, she said.

During the visit it is expected that the two sides will sign deals worth more than $29.3bn. The Chinese delegation is also expected to sign dozens of agreements with other Arab states covering energy, security and investment.

“From the perspective of Saudi Arabia, the visits of both President Biden and President Xi to Riyadh this year is also about showing Saudi Arabia's increasing international prestige and its desired role as the gateway to the Middle East,” Ms Jacobs said.

The kingdom is also appealing to its “domestic audience by helping to secure economic gains in support of Saudi Vision 2030".

Mr Xi is hoping to enable economic partnerships and prove that much of the West is biased in labelling China as a threat, Sana Hashmi, a postdoctoral fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation, told The National.

“Mr Biden’s visit was important in a way that it did show that the US is invested in the region and its ties with Saudi Arabia. The US will be unable to match up with the economic promises of China.

“In all likelihood, Mr Xi’s visit will be high on promise and substance,” she said.

China-Saudi relations

China is Saudi Arabia's largest trading partner in the region, with bilateral trade worth $87.3 billion last year. Chinese exports to Saudi Arabia reached $30.3 billion, while China's imports from the kingdom totalled $57 billion.

Saudi Arabia is China's top oil supplier, making up 18 per cent of China's total crude purchases, with imports totalling 73.54 million tonnes (1.77 million barrels a day) in the first 10 months of this year, worth $55.5 billion, according to Chinese customs data.

Ms Hashmi said relations between the two nations were comprehensive as trading involved not only energy but encompassed other sectors such as security and defence.

"For both China and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it’s about doing business and both are succeeding in this," she said.

Beijing is in need of friends and partners so it's reaching out to states that refuse to take sides or are titled towards China, she said.

"China is now reaching out to the countries/regions where the US influence is manageable or countered," Ms Hashmi said.

Joe Biden’s Riyadh trip

Mr Biden’s famous fist bump in the Royal State Palace in Jeddah in July, when flags were raised, the green and white of Saudi Arabia set alongside the USA's stars and stripes, portrayed that ties between the two were stable.

During a speech in Jeddah, Mr Biden said the US would "not walk away from the region and leave a vacuum that will be filled by China, Russia, or Iran”.

This aimed to convince Gulf leaders that the US would keep its promises and stick to its policies in the region.

Mr Biden visited the kingdom to reset ties with Riyadh and request extra oil to help offset record-high prices in the US that were weighing heavily on his approval ratings at home.

He aimed to convince Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to boost production over the coming months to help bring down the cost of petrol.

However, Mr Biden expressed disappointment in the Opec decision to slash oil production last month and said the US would be seeking alternatives, after the cut led to a jump in prices.

The decision meant the alliance will cut output by two million barrels per day, its biggest reduction since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

Updated: December 07, 2022, 5:56 PM