The significance of Xi Jinping's visit to Saudi Arabia

Summits in Riyadh underscore Beijing's reliance on the Gulf and its role in the wider region's development

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The Arab Gulf region is in the midst of a constructive reboot, with its visionary leaders daring to dream, plan, reform and establish partnerships aimed at the well-being of its peoples.

In the past two weeks, poignant images showing accord have aroused feelings of pride and joy, with Doha hosting a successful football World Cup and welcoming the region’s leaders determined to make the necessary moves forward.

Another impressive development is Saudi Arabia recording a budget surplus for 2023 to the tune of $4.2 billion, and the announcement by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of a historic drop in unemployment in the kingdom. This is the fruit of several reforms, including increasing women’s participation in the economy from 17.7 to 35.5 per cent.

Over the weekend, Riyadh hosted two summits for the first time – a Gulf-Chinese meeting and an Arab-Chinese conference – which reflected the kingdom’s adoption of a doctrine based on partnership as a pathway to successful leadership.

The Riyadh summits, attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping, fired the starting gun for the future.

They secured the export of oil to China and the import of technology from it, established partnerships in mega projects linking China to the Gulf and to the wider Arab region. For its part, China’s leadership seeks sustainable energy supplies. It expects Moscow’s international problems to deepen, and doesn't want to depend entirely on possibly unreliable supplies from it in the future.

Since China’s ruling party conference renewed its commitment to the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing also seeks to build robust relations with countries in the Middle East. Indeed, a new page in economic relations won't be limited to the energy sphere. It will also include development projects from infrastructure to tourism. In technology, co-operation will extend beyond the civilian to possibly the military sphere, at a time when the West seems unwilling to share certain technologies with the Arab states.

Shipping containers sit beside railway lines running into Mombasa port, operated by Kenya Ports Authority, in Mombasa, Kenya, on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. China's modern-day adaptation of the Silk Road, known as the Belt and Road Initiative, aims to revive and extend trading routes connecting China with Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe via networks of upgraded or new railways, ports, pipelines, power grids and highways. Photographer: Luis Tato/Bloomberg
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China wants to act as a bridge between Saudi Arabia and Iran

Beijing is certain that current circumstances favour its desire to increase its influence in the Middle East, given Russia’s de facto exit from the region and the US's arguably lost initiative.

There is, of course, no evidence to suggest that China views the Middle East as an arena of competition with the US, but the reverse is true – although it's important to remember that Washington doesn't oppose the development of Gulf-China relations as long as they remain economic in nature. In turn, Beijing isn't seeking to replace the US as the Gulf's pre-eminent security partner. In fact, beyond the stand-off over Taiwan, China doesn't see itself in that kind of conflict with the US.

Therefore, the only issue that has a security dimension in the Gulf region is Iran.

Beijing wants to act as a bridge between Saudi Arabia and Iran and help defuse their tensions, believing it can play a successful role in ending the Yemen conflict. Tehran might resist these efforts, but Beijing’s leverage over it is substantial, thanks to their strategic pact. Beijing, moreover, imports huge quantities of Iranian oil, giving Tehran a lifeline that has helped it to avert economic collapse due to crippling US-led sanctions.

Arab states can benefit from their relations with China to rein in Tehran. This would be a major shift, bearing in mind that Iran had previously sought to build an alliance with Russia and China. This troika’s Iranian and Russian components have unravelled, and so its nature has radically changed due to the leap in Arab-China relations.

Today, Beijing doesn't seek to link its fate to that of Russia, particularly if the latter were to be defeated or further weakened by the Ukraine war. Indeed, the international community has begun preparing for a bipolar world led by the US and China. This requires the two powers to think carefully about the meaning of global security and stability in this new world order. And energy stability in the Gulf is a crucial part of Chinese thinking, underscoring the importance of Mr Xi's Saudi visit.

Riyadh is aware of this. While it’s keen to stabilise the energy markets, bearing in mind that China is the biggest importer of Saudi oil, it also seeks technology imports without restrictions and knowledge transfer and partnerships to jump-start a renaissance in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is evolving every day, through innovation, projects, investments, and the development of its coastal areas, cities and tourism.

A US Navy photo shows the IRGC ship Shahid Bazair, left, towing a US Navy Saildrone Explorer in the Arabian Gulf in August. AP Photo

The accord emerging among the six GCC countries indicates that they are building a strong base from which to relaunch their joint agenda. The optics of Prince Mohammed standing alongside Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim Al Thani, during the opening ceremony of the World Cup were positive, reinforced by images of Sheikh Tamim celebrating Saudi Arabia's victory against Argentina by hanging the kingdom’s flag around his neck.

Likewise, President Sheikh Mohamed’s visit to Doha was pivotal, opening a new page and indicating a return to accord. These two countries can be proud of their rapid development, from national infrastructure to space exploration.

The UAE is pursuing a pioneering space mission – the latest achievement being Sunday’s launch of the Rashid Rover to the Moon – as it seeks to fulfil its dreams through its men and women, incessantly probing the features of the future. For its part, Qatar has shown the world its technological and organisational prowess during the World Cup.

The patriotic display by the Arab teams at the tournament has also been a sight to behold, allowing sports diplomacy to enable reconciliation.

Kuwait is playing a global role in support of humanitarian work. Oman, meanwhile, has become a key back channel for international diplomacy, working to reconcile opposite sides, overcome obstacles, and resolve regional crises. For its part, Bahrain has charted out an impressive path towards religious co-existence, recently hosting Pope Francis.

Further, the joint Saudi-Emirati mediation that led to last week’s US-Russia prisoner swap affirms the distinguished international role of the two states and its two leaders.

The mutual strategic trust that Mr Xi spoke about in Riyadh is a positive vision that shouldn't worry Washington, as long as there is seriousness, continuity and coherence in US-Gulf strategic relations. Upholding this trust will be key for the various entities to sustain the important progress made in recent weeks.

Published: December 11, 2022, 2:00 PM