China moves to appear a major player in the Arab region like USA. He supports the Arab leaders on the issues of Palestine, technology upgradation, and gateway to financial markets. But, President Xi’s real intent behind the Riyadh visit was to wean the Arab countries away from the United States and hope to bring them closer to China on strategic issues … writes Dr Sakariya Kareem
China’s quiet foray into the Middle East in December, as the world focused on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, sought to take advantage of the current discord between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to convert its existing bilateral relationship with the latter into a strategic one.
The summit comes in the backdrop of Riyadh and other Gulf countries shoring up links with Asian markets amid strained ties between Saudi Arabia and its long-standing ally, the United States, after the OPEC+ cartel slashed oil production, ignoring pleas from Washington.
President Xi Jinping set aside his internal worries about the uncontrollable virus outbreak in his country to pay an official visit to Riyadh to attend the first China-Arab States Summit and the China-GCC Summit and pay a state visit to Saudi Arabia at the invitation of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia.
Much to his glee, the Saudis accorded him a grand reception. His special plane was escorted by four fighter jets from the Royal Saudi Air Force after it entered Saudi Arabia’s airspace, and by six Saudi Hawk jets from the royal aerobatic team after it entered Riyadh’s airspace.
President Xi Jinping was greeted by the Governor of Riyadh Province Prince Faisal bin Bandar Al Saud, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Minister Yasir Al-Rumayyan who works on China affairs and other key members of the royal family and senior officials of the government. A 21-gun salute heralded the arrival. The Saudi Hawks painted the sky in red and yellow, the colours of China’s national flag. Honour guards flanked the purple carpet. Chinese and Saudi national flags fluttered in the air.
Xi used the visit to bolster ties given that his last trip was in January 2016. According to China’s customs data, Saudi Arabia was China’s largest source of foreign oil ahead of Russia in October. Earlier, in March, there were reports that both countries were in talks to settle oil deals in yuan, a topic the two nations have discussed for six years. That change would undercut the dollar, which has long been the default currency for pricing energy contracts around the world. Further stoking the rumours, President Xi reportedly told Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a telephonic conversation in April that Beijing “puts a priority” on deepening ties with Riyadh, and wants “high-level” cooperation on energy, trade and high-tech industries.
Earlier this year, Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Zhai Jun, ambassador and special envoy of the Chinese government in the Middle East, discussed various issues, including cooperation between the Arab world and China.
In Riyadh, Xi assured the Saudis his intentions in seeking to strengthen ties in the Middle East were noble. He talked about the need to “consolidate political mutual trust and firmly support each other’s core interests” and “jointly uphold the principle of non-interference in internal affairs, practice true multilateralism, and defend the common interests of all developing countries”.
Oil was his first priority issue. He assured that China will “continue to import large quantities of crude oil on a long-term basis from GCC countries, and purchase more LNG”. He said the Shanghai Petroleum and Natural Gas Exchange platform will be fully utilized for RMB settlement in the oil and gas trade.
He wanted China and GCC countries to collaborate on financial regulation and facilitate entry into China’s capital market for GCC companies. He made a slew of promises, including building big data and cloud computing centres with GCC countries, strengthening 5G and 6G technology cooperation and implementing 10 digital economy projects in such areas as cross-border e-commerce and communications networks.
The Arabs, in turn, assured President Xi that they firmly adhere to the one-China principle, and are willing to continue to give firm support to China on issues involving China’s core interests and oppose any hostile acts against China. Among other assurances was the Arab interest to “jointly build BRI” projects.
President Xi was quick to reciprocate and say “the Palestinian issue bears on peace and stability in the Middle East…the historical injustices done to the Palestinian people should not be left unattended indefinitely”.
Xi backed the Arab call for a two-state solution and the principle of ‘land for peace’, make resolute efforts to promote peace talks, provide more humanitarian and development assistance to Palestine, and strive for a just settlement of the Palestinian issue at an early date.
The Chinese president saw his efforts in the Middle East as a step towards South-South cooperation. In the last one decade, their trade has grown by $100 billion, with the total volume exceeding $300 billion. China’s direct investment in Arab states was up by 2.6 times, with the stock of investment reaching 23 billion dollars; over 200 Belt and Road projects have been carried out, benefiting nearly two billion people on the two sides.
His real intent behind the Riyadh visit was to wean the Arab countries away from the United States and hope to bring them closer to China on strategic issues. His speech addresses the issue without any ambiguity. “We should stay independent and defend our common interests. China supports Arab states in independently exploring development paths suited to their national conditions and holding their future firmly in their own hands. China is ready to deepen strategic mutual trust with Arab states, and firmly support each other in safeguarding sovereignty, territorial integrity and national dignity. Our two sides should jointly uphold the principle of non-interference in other countries internal affairs, practice true multilateralism, and defend the legitimate rights and interests of developing countries.”
Chinese media, led by Global Times, put a stamp of approval on the new initiative saying: “Although they (Arab countries) are rich in energy, these countries have never gotten rid of the entanglement of geopolitical conflicts… Avoiding political turmoil while achieving stable economic growth has become a common desire of many Arab countries. They are keenly interested in China’s experience, which China is willing to share with its Arab partners without reservation. Unlike some powers that have entered the Middle East with a superior posture and focused on geopolitical and security issues, China shares the hardships of the Arab countries in the struggle for national liberation.”
The Xi-bin Salman meeting comes at a delicate moment in US-Saudi ties, signalling Arab resolve to move away from the West’s viewpoint on global issues. Oil production is a bone contention between the two. The Saudis are also bitter about the waning US security presence in the region, especially amid growing threats from Iran and its armed Yemeni proxies. They are equally disturbed by the American criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, particularly after the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
The China-Saudi summit tells the West that the Arabs have somebody else to look up to while the Chinese expect the summit to indicate that they have finally arrived in the region.