Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh on Wednesday for a multiple-day visit, China’s official news agency Xinhua reported, amid frayed ties between the two countries and the United States.
Saudi state TV showed Xi walking down the steps of his presidential aircraft at King Khalid International Airport, where he was received by Saudi Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz, governor of the Riyadh region, and Prince Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah, Saudi foreign minister.
A purple carpet was rolled out for the Chinese president, and canons were fired.
The visit will include a “Saudi-Chinese summit,” a China-Arab and a China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) previously reported.
Rumors of a Chinese presidential visit to the US’ largest Middle East ally have been circulating for months as the nations have solidified their ties, possibly to Washington’s dismay.
Indeed, the White House said Wednesday it’s not surprised Xi is making a high-profile visit to Saudi Arabia since Beijing is working to grow its influence in the Middle East.
“We’re mindful of the influence that China is trying to grow around the world,” said John Kirby, the strategic communications coordinator at the National Security Council.
Xi’s trip comes against the backdrop of a number of disagreements harbored by the US toward both Beijing and Riyadh, including grievances about oil production, human rights and other issues.
But Saudi Arabia’s grand reception of the Chinese president is only emblematic of the magnitude of their growing relationship, specifically around oil, trade and security. The two countries are expected to sign deals worth more than $29 billion during this week’s visit, according to SPA.
China is today Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, with the value of the kingdom’s exports to China having exceeded $50 billion last year, constituting more than 18% of Saudi Arabia’s total exports in 2021. Bilateral trade between the two states is more than $80 billion dollars, SPA reported.
Saudi Arabia has also traditionally been China’s top oil supplier, with Saudi barrels making up around 17% of total Chinese oil imports as of last year, according to the Saudi-backed Arab News.
While the kingdom remains a key supplier for its Chinese partner, oil relations may have been slightly on edge this year as sanctioned Russia pours its discounted barrels into the Asian market.
Apart from oil exports, Saudi Arabia has this year ramped up its Chinese investments, which culminated in Aramco’s whopping $10 billion dollar investment into a refinery and petrochemical complex in China’s northeast.
These close ties have been years in the making as both countries have sought to diversify their security and energy sources, experts say.
“Now it is the height of the bilateral relations between the two since their establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992,” Shaojin Chai, an assistant professor at the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, told CNN.
“They become closer as both sides need each other in many areas: energy transition, economic diversification, defense capacity building for KSA and climate change, to name just a few,” said Chai, referring to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and adding that “the diversification of security risk entails KSA including rising China in its hedge.”
While China and Saudi Arabia’s friendship has blossomed over the decades, they seem to have become closer as both find themselves in precarious positions in regard to the US.
A strong American ally for eight long decades, Saudi Arabia has become bitter over what it perceives to be waning US security presence in the region, especially amid growing threats from Iran and its armed proxies in the Middle East.
An economic mammoth in the east, China has been at odds with the US over Taiwan, the democratically governed island of 24 million people that Beijing claims as its territory despite never having controlled it.
US President Joe Biden has repeatedly vowed to help Taiwan in the event of an attack by China, which has not ruled out the use of force to “reunify” with the island.
The thorny topic has gravely aggravated a precarious relationship between Washington and Beijing, who are already competing for influence in the volatile Middle East.
National Security Council spokesperson Kirby added Wednesday: “The Middle East is certainly one of those regions where they (China) want to deepen their level of influence.”
“Probably not a surprise that the President Xi is traveling around and certainly not a surprise that he that he chose to go to the Middle East,” he said.
Kirby added that the US’ strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia continues, despite the oil production disagreement.
And he said it was up to Riyadh and Beijing to make their own decisions about their bilateral relationships.
“Sovereign nations have every right to conduct bilateral relations that they see fit,” he said. “We would let China and Saudi Arabia speak to this particular visit on their own. We are not asking nations to choose between the United States and China.”
Meanwhile, China has also been cementing its ties with other Gulf monarchies, as well as with US foes Iran and Russia.
“If they’re signaling anything to the rest of the world, I suspect it’s mainly that they are two important countries with a deep, interest-based relationship,” said Jonathan Fulton, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank.
“At a time when negative perceptions of China dominate in much of the West, Xi will be lavishly welcomed in Saudi Arabia, the most important Arab state, the most important country in global Islam, and a major actor in global energy markets,” Fulton told CNN.
“And the Saudis can show that they remain important to extra-regional powers, even if their relationship with Washington is rocky,” he added.