About the author:
Dr. Waseem Ishaque, Senior Fellow of Taihe Institute
President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from December 7 to December 10, 2022, and the holding of successful bilateral meetings and agreements with Saudi leadership are positive developments for cementing bilateral ties, improving economic and trade relations, and helping Saudi Arabia in achieving its Vision 2030. The unprecedented China-Arab States Summit and China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit are important milestones in the successful conduct of China’s foreign policies of mutual trust, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation. The visit marks the climax of Sino-Arab relations, which shall open new vistas of cooperation between China and the Arab world. The analysis paper examines the constituents of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia, drawing implications for China, the region, and global governance at large.
Traditional Saudi hospitality and warm reception
The Saudi hosts demonstrated traditional Arab hospitality in arranging spectacular reception for President Xi Jinping. The fighter jets escorted his plane after entering Saudi airspace, demonstrating a colorful airshow when he landed and during his reception at the airport. Purple carpet and gun salute were arranged at the airport. The formal reception at the Al Yamamah Palace on December 8 was also unprecedented and rarely arranged by the Saudi government. Therefore, President Xi Jinping was uniquely honored by the hosts. Later special traditional banquettes were arranged with Arab dance and cuisine. President Xi warmly reciprocated the hosts for their unfathomable hospitality and profound reception. He also conveyed warm greetings and best wishes to the government and the people of Saudi Arabia on behalf of the government and the people of China. On behalf of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman extended a warm welcome to President Xi, and expressed sincere congratulations on the success of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and President Xi Jinping’s re-election as General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee during his welcome speech at the Al Yamamah Palace in Riyadh.
New era of China-Saudi Arabia friendship
President Xi Jinping described this landmark visit as a “pioneering trip” to open new panoramas of cooperation between China and the Arab world. After the establishment of diplomatic relations 32 years ago, the trajectory of bilateral relations has been on an upward trend, and today stands at an all-time high. Back in 2016, both countries established a comprehensive strategic partnership, which has been elevated to higher levels now. President Xi assured to steer the bilateral relations on a path of significant progress, which not only benefits the people of both countries but also effectively promotes regional peace, stability, prosperity, and development. President Xi assured the hosts that China and Arab countries would continue to hold high the banner of non-interference in internal affairs and jointly work for common development and prosperity of the peoples as utmost priority. Both leaders vehemently alluded that the growing China-Saudi ties are not at cost of any other country and showed determination on creating a community with a shared future for the eventual benefit of both countries. The Crown Prince thanked President Xi for this extraordinary visit and highlighted that Saudi Arabia is opposed to any “interference in China’s internal affairs in the name of human rights and firmly believes in ‘one China policy’.” At the successful inauguration of the first-ever China-Arab States Summit, President Xi lauded the personal efforts of the Crown Prince and thanked him for making this a reality. He also emphasized the role of Saudi Arabia as “an important force in the multipolar world” and assured the hosts that the visit and successful conclusion of the summits would prove to be “milestone events in the history of Sino-Arab relations.”
President Xi Jinping noted that the international and regional situation is undergoing profound and complex changes, making the strategic and overarching importance of China-Saudi Arabia relations even more pronounced. President Xi assured the hosts that China will work with Saudi Arabia to achieve each other’s national rejuvenation, forge stronger synergy between development initiatives, deepen practical cooperation in all areas, increase communication and coordination in international and regional affairs, and achieve even greater progress in the China-Saudi Arabia comprehensive strategic partnership. President Xi stressed that China firmly supports Saudi Arabia in upholding its sovereignty, security, and stability, and pursuing a development path that is suited to its national conditions. China supports Saudi Arabia’s major development initiatives such as the Saudi Vision 2030 and the Middle East Green Initiative, and will actively participate in Saudi Arabia’s industrialization and contribute to the diversified development of its economy.
China-Saudi Arabia cooperation at high tides
Despite tumultuous regional security environments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia is growing at a faster pace. It is worth noting that China is the world’s biggest energy consumer and a major trade partner of the Gulf states. The bilateral ties have expanded as the region pushes for economic diversification. The Saudi Energy Minister said that Saudi Arabia is a “trusted and reliable” energy partner and both countries would boost cooperation in energy supply chains by setting up a regional center in the Kingdom for Chinese factories. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trade partner. Bilateral trade reached a total of US$87.31 billion in 2021, and the yearly growth rate is 30.1%. Chinese exports to Saudi Arabia reached US$30.32 billion, up by 7.9%, while Chinese imports from Saudi Arabia reached US$56.99 billion, up by 46%.
The high-level official ceremony at the Al Yamamah Palace also concluded 34 bilateral agreements worth US$ 30 billion in green energy, information technology, cloud services, transport, construction, and other sectors. China and Saudi Arabia displayed splendid enthusiasm to synergize the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, enhance multi-dimensional areas of cooperation broadly covering energy policy, expansion in the exploration, development and scale of crude oil, and deliver on the Sino-Saudi Gulei Ethylene Complex Project and other large-scale energy cooperation projects. China will also deepen industrial and infrastructure cooperation with Saudi Arabia, advance the development of the China-Saudi Arabia (Jizan) Industrial Park and the construction of major infrastructure projects, up-scale trade, investment, and financial cooperation, expand cooperation in such areas as e-commerce, digital economy, clean energy, high technology, and space research and development, and enhance cooperation in law-enforcement, counterterrorism, and de-radicalization.
President Xi Jinping designated Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination for Chinese visitors to expand people-to-people exchanges and mutual visits on both sides. Additionally, he emphasized on strengthening education cooperation on Chinese language learning for Saudi nationals. President Xi Jinping lauded Saudi Arabia’s positive contributions to international and regional affairs and assured enhanced cooperation at multilateral forums like the UN, the G20, and other organizations to harmonize policies of common development. President Xi appreciated the Saudi leader’s unfathomable efforts in arranging extraordinary summits and spearheading Sino-Arab and China-GCC relations to new heights.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman described that Saudi Arabia and China enjoy very close and friendly relations, and Saudi Arabia is China’s comprehensive strategic partner in the Middle East. The Chinese economy has maintained steady growth despite the pandemic, and Saudi Arabia is striving to realize its Vision 2030 for which Chinese help would be appreciated. Saudi Arabia is eager to work with China to enhance mutual support, and jointly elevate comprehensive strategic partnership to higher levels. He lauded that President Xi’s visit would become an important milestone in the history of the bilateral relationship. It will help secure more achievements of bilateral cooperation in various areas, deliver more benefits to the two peoples, and facilitate the common development and prosperity of the two countries. Saudi Arabia strongly supports China’s efforts in safeguarding its own sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity, and fight against three evil forces, i.e., terrorism, extremism and separatism. Saudi Arabia rejects interference in China’s internal affairs by any external forces under the excuse of human rights or any other such proverbial statements. Saudi Arabia will continue to actively engage in the Belt and Road Initiative with China and expand trade and two-way investment. It welcomes more Chinese companies to take part in the industrialization process of Saudi Arabia, including the construction of major infrastructure and energy projects, and enhance cooperation in such areas as the automobile industry, science and technology, chemical industry, and mining. Saudi Arabia appreciates China for supporting Saudi Arabia to become a dialogue partner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and will increase communication and coordination with China on multilateral occasions such as the G20 and BRICS. Saudi Arabia is keen to work with China to jointly respond to challenges such as energy security, food security, and climate change, maintain close dialogue and cooperation on major regional hotspots, jointly contribute to upholding regional peace, security, and stability, and strive for common security in the region. Saudi Arabia will play an active role in the development of relations between Arab states and China and between GCC countries and China. And the Crown Prince expressed his full confidence in the future of Saudi Arabia-China relations. The two sides agreed to upgrade the China-Saudi Arabia High-Level Joint Committee to the prime minister’s level. The two leaders attended the ceremony for exchanging documents on Belt and Road cooperation, judicial, education, hydrogen energy, investment, and housing cooperation.
King Salman also participated in an extravagant ceremony and signed a “comprehensive strategic partnership agreement” with President Xi Jinping. Saudi Arabia and China also showcased deepening ties with a series of strategic deals including one with tech giant Huawei. Crown Prince Salman regarded President Xi’s visit as the symbol of a historic and new phase of relations with China. Saudi Foreign Minister described the elevated friendship as out of any zero-sum game, stating that “we do not believe in polarization or in choosing between sides.” Such remarks are the testimony of ever-growing China-Saudi ties which are based on mutual respect and trust and are not against any other country or power.
China-Arab States and China-GCC summits: momentous steps in relations
Before the start of the planned summits on December 9, 2022, President Xi Jinping attended a jam-packed program, where he met with Arab leaders during one-on-one meetings and shared China’s preception of creating a community with a shared future through common development and win-win cooperation. He assured them that China would work together with Arab countries and “advance Sino-Arab relations to a new level.” The summits represented a large-scale diplomatic activity of China. During his welcome address, Crown Prince Salam lauded President Xi for this unprecedented opportunity of direct interaction with Arab and GCC leaders. He appreciated the participants and hoped that this summit would go a long way in raising the level of joint cooperation among the member states of the Arab League, GCC, and China and usher in a new era of partnership as enhanced cooperation shall help create stability. While thanking the hosts for exceptional arrangements, President Xi Jinping pointed out that the summit, through comprehensive cooperation, would lead to a brighter future to serve Sino-Arab mutual interests. President Xi expressed that China and Arab countries are natural partners as they belong to Eastern civilizations with similar cultural values. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi highlighted the significance of Arab-Sino ties and stressed enhanced coordination with China to resolve regional and international crises. President Xi expressed his hope for peaceful resolutions of hot spot issues like the war in Yemen, and instability in Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan and Palestine, to name a few. On other nontraditional challenges like climate change, anti-piracy, terrorism, and extremism, President Xi stressed a joint strategy to defeat the evil forces. The issues of increasing trade volume, clean and renewable energy, fossil fuel, and free trade were also deliberated at the summit. The joint 2023-30 action plan aimed at strengthening the existing level of strategic partnership in economic, political, and cultural fields. President Xi Jinping assured the interlocutors that China will work with the GCC over the next three to five years across five key areas: energy, investment, digital economy, space, and cooperation in culture and languages with plans to teach Chinese languages in 300 schools and universities. On the trade side, he highlighted that China wants to work with the GCC to import natural gas and engineering services, improve storage and refining of oil and gas, and enhance cooperation in the field of clean energy, smart electrical networks, and production equipment related to new energy. President Xi proposed a China-Gulf forum for sound uses of nuclear energy and a center of excellence for nuclear security to train 300 specialists in the peaceful use of power sources, apart from cooperation in space technology. Other topics deliberated during the summits covered a range of issues like security, stability, and the priority of restoring international peace through mutual respect and cooperation. President Xi suggested the participating countries be partners to improve regional security and support resolving differences through dialogue and consultations, and building collective security mechanisms.
Analytical discourse on geopolitics surrounding the visit
China follows the independent foreign policies of mutual respect, mutual trust, and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. China’s bilateral and multilateral interactions are non-zero-sum and do not demonstrate any threat to any country or group of countries. Strictly adhering to the principles of the UN Charter, China is striving to create a community with a shared future through win-win cooperation. While President Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia is unprecedented in the sense that the first-ever Sino-Arab and China-GCC summits were held under the auspices of Saudi Arabia, this was different from all previous US engagements in the region which claims it to be a priority area of US national security as the U.S. has been militarily involved in this region for the last five decades. Following the aftershocks of the U.S.-led Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), the Arab Spring, regime changes, infighting, democratization, etc., have ruined their economy, infrastructure, and society. However, China has provided an alternate model of common development, shared destiny, and win-win cooperation. Such developments cannot be free of geopolitical aspects, where, from the US perspective, their traditional hegemony is being threatened and their influence has been reducing. This part examines the reactions and responses of important stakeholders.
The United States
The U.S. is very much upset and concerned about the warm reception and purple carpet rolled out in honor of President Xi Jinping in Riyadh, which is in sharp contrast to President Biden’s low-key reception by their traditional ally in the Middle East. In optics, the atmosphere and pageantry, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s meeting with President Xi Jinping, who arrived at the Al Yamamah Palace flanked by a cavalry escort, was a universe away from the obdurate exchange the Prince had with President Biden just a few months ago. The White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby stated that “President Xi’s visit was an example of Chinese attempts to exert influence,” and that this would not change US policy toward the Middle East. He also added that “we are mindful of the influence that China is trying to grow around the world and especially in the Middle East.” The U.S. estimates that China, the world’s biggest energy consumer, is a major trade partner of Gulf oil and gas producers. Bilateral ties have expanded under the region’s economic diversification push, raising US concerns about growing Chinese involvement in sensitive infrastructure in the Gulf, which gets a boost during the current visit by President Xi Jinping. The United States can only warily watch China’s growing sway, and, with its ties to Riyadh and President Xi’s trip, China’s attempts to exert influence in the Middle East are obvious.
Russia and Saudi Arabia relations are at higher levels and ever since the rebuking behavior of former US President Donald Trump and now Joe Biden, against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Putin, both countries have developed unanimity of views against US antagonistic behavior. Similarly, on the OPEC front, both leaders got identical humiliating treatment from President Biden on oil prices and the production cap. Both countries consider the U.S. as hegemonic and bullying with no respect for other countries, their systems and leadership. However, both countries enjoy very good relations with China at bilateral and multilateral levels. Russia considers China’s involvement in the turbulent Middle East as a sign of stability and welcomes cooperative engagement. Enhanced cooperation and strategic partnership would help in infrastructure development, which demonstrates a greater degree of acceptability of soft power among the public in sharp contrast with US engagement. Such positive developments will also provide Russia with more diplomatic space and leverage in engaging with Middle East countries. Therefore, Russia is quite optimistic about such developments.
India has not given any official response to the visit till the writing of these analyses. However, it is visualized that India enjoys very good bilateral economic and trade relations with China. Their bilateral trade has now reached US$100 billion. Similarly, India has gained a lot of acceptability in the Arab world in the last almost a decade, through bilateral and multilateral engagements. India and China are also partners in several multilateral forums, e.g., the APEC, the SCO, BRICS, the G20, ASEAN, etc. Therefore, it can be ascertained that India is maintaining a neutral view on Sino-Arab developments.
Pakistan and China are traditional partners and enjoy “Iron-Clad Friendship.” Similarly, Pakistan also enjoys very good relations with all Arab and GCC countries, especially with Saudi Arabi which have now been elevated to “strategic partnership.” From Pakistan’s perspective, growing engagement between China and the Arab world is a positive development as it will help in the economic and infrastructure development of relevant countries and improve the living conditions of commoners affected by the years of instability and infighting. Strong Sino-Arab cooperation and inclusion in BRI would help the extension of already rolled out China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to the Middle East, where Pakistan would serve as conduit for movement of goods, services and oil transportation etc. from China to the Middle East and vice versa. Therefore, Pakistan warmly welcomes President Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia and engagement with the Arab world.
China enjoys excellent bilateral relations with Iran, and both have signed up the 25-Year Strategic Cooperation Agreement to the tune of US$400 billion. The relations were upgraded to the level of strategic partnership and both countries pledged to seek comprehensive improvement in relations in times to come. Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated, “Our relations with Iran will not be affected by the current situation, but will be permanent and strategic.” Both countries enjoy unanimity of views on regional security, infrastructure development, and economic engagement. In that context, Iran demonstrates neutrality in Sino-Arab and China-GCC engagements. On the optimistic analysis, Chinese involvement is considered a factor of stability for the region, and therefore, Iran welcomes these developments.
The world is sick and tired of wars, conflicts, and power politics. The Middle East has been in turmoil since the last two decades, which has ruined its economy, infrastructure, and national cohesion. The visit by President Xi Jinping and the conclusion of several agreements with Arab countries will go a long way in bringing stability to the troubled region. China’s eagerness to contribute to infrastructure and other developmental activities of recipient countries is a welcome development for ensuring sustainable economic development and improving the quality of life of citizens. The agreed framework should be actualized with vigorous pursuit of avoiding geopolitics and a zero-sum game, through a collaborative approach and win-win cooperation.
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