Xi hails ‘new era’ in Chinese-Arab relations on visit to Saudi Arabia

Warm welcome for Chinese leader contrasts with cool reception for US president Joe Biden earlier this year

Chinese president Xi Jinping predicted a “new era” in Chinese-Arab relations on Friday as he wound up three regional summits in Saudi Arabia. During his three-day stay he held summits with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed, the six Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) rulers, and leaders from Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, and other heads of state and organisations.

Mr Xi’s visit, his third trip abroad since the start of the pandemic, was hailed by Beijing as China’s “biggest initiative in the Arab world”.

Riyadh and Beijing signed trade deals valued at $39 billion (€37 billion), a strategic partnership, and and an agreement to harmonise China’s Belt and Road programme with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 development project. The latter is expected to provide opportunities for Chinese companies to build Saudi infrastructure and technological capabilities with the aim of reducing the kingdom’s dependence on oil.

China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, with 2021 bilateral trade valued at $87.3 billion. Chinese exports totalled $30.3 billion, while China’s imports were $57 billion, oil being 77 per cent and amounting to 17 per cent of China’s total oil imports.


Saudi Arabia has also increased Chinese investments, including Saudi-Aramco’s $10 billion funding of a refinery and petrochemical complex in northeast China.

During the summit with GCC rulers, Mr Xi called for the establishment of a Chinese-Gulf investment council to achieve economic and industrial integration, while the Saudi crown prince cheered a “new phase of co-operation”.

The China -Arab summit was the first since the China-Arab cooperation forum was founded in 2004 and promotes the Saudi crown prince’s ambition to lead the Arab world.

The warm welcome Mr Xi received contrasted sharply with the cool reception accorded US president Joe Biden, who attended a GCC summit in Jeddah in July. Washington’s relations with both Beijing and Riyadh have been strained since he took office. While China has good relations with US antagonists Russia and Iran, Saudi Arabia co-operates with Russia on oil.

Mr Biden has focused on “containing China” by countering its expansion of foreign ties while reducing decades-long US involvement in the Middle East. Due to the 2018 murder by Saudi argents of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and domestic human rights violations, the Saudi crown prince was snubbed for 17 months by Mr Biden.

When he urged Riyadh to boost oil exports to lower petrol prices and make up for Russian crude boycotted since the Ukraine war, the Saudi-led oil cartel, Opec, cut oil exports by two million barrels a day.

US national security council spokesman John Kirby said Mr Xi’s visit was “not conducive” to international order and said Mr Biden has ordered a review of relations with Saudi Arabia. For 80 years, Saudi-US relations have been based on oil-for-protection, but this equation has eroded since the US ceased to depend on Saudi oil and the kingdom began to cultivate China.

“We never perceived the Saudi-Chinese ties to be at the expense of Saudi-American ones,” wrote columnist, Abdulrahman al-Rashed in Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat daily. “Beijing does not burden its partners with demands or political expectations and refrains from interfering in their internal affairs.”

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times