Chinas head of state Xi Jinping did not skimp on big words during his visit to Saudi Arabia. After meeting Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, he spoke of an “important milestone in the history of relations,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Friday. Earlier, Xi had proclaimed a “new era” in the two countries’ relations in a newspaper article.
The host prepared a pompous reception for the Chinese head of state. Before landing in riad on Wednesday, Xi’s plane was escorted by Saudi fighter jets. His limousine was escorted by horsemen carrying Saudi and Chinese flags on its way to the royal palace on Thursday.
The comparison to the cold reception that the heir to the Saudi throne had given American President Joe Biden in July was obvious. Saudi foreign policy is walking a tightrope: on the one hand, Riyadh wants to send a clear signal to Washington that the kingdom wants to position itself as an independent actor in a multipolar world that is no longer based on an American hegemon. On the other hand, it does not want to alienate the United States as a partner. Despite historically poor bilateral relations, Washington is essential to Riyadh’s security. The comments in the Saudi press reflected that. A “historic event” was celebrated there, but at the same time it was established that the approach to China not driven by the Saudi will to forge an alliance.
Free ride for Huawei in Saudi Arabia
A joint statement from both sides said they had signed an agreement on a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. In Chinese diplomacy, this is the highest level of relations. However, it was reached during Xi’s previous visit in 2016. It has now been agreed that the two heads of state should meet every two years and that the heads of government should hold technical talks on a regular basis. So far, this has happened at the level of the deputy prime ministers. Economic contracts have been signed in the energy, health, infrastructure and information technology sectors, according to the Chinese People’s Daily.
A declaration of intent by the Saudi leadership, the Chinese telecommunications group, seems delicate Huawei to enable the construction of data centers in the kingdom. The group is subject to US sanctions. There is concern in America that Huawei could use the expansion of 5G and 6G networks for espionage and, in the event of a conflict, for sabotage. However, Huawei continues to do good business in the Gulf. Brett McGurk, the US National Security Council’s Middle East coordinator, warned at a security conference in Bahrain in November that “certain partnerships” with China would “put a ceiling” on what the US can offer its allies.
For China is Saudi Arabia is no longer just an important energy supplier, but also a strategic partner. This can be seen, for example, in the expansion of military cooperation. In November, after an arms fair in Zhuhai, Chinese media reported on Saudi orders worth $4 billion, including for drones, anti-drone systems and alleged anti-ship missiles. China’s growing interest in the region is also reflected in the fact that its investments in Saudi Arabia and its neighboring countries under the New Silk Road Initiative have recently increased while they have fallen in other regions.
An intensified cooperation in “police work, counter-terrorism and deradicalisation” was also agreed. For China, this is relevant against the background of the West’s ongoing criticism of the suppression of the Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, which Beijing justifies with the fight against terrorism. Beijing attaches particular importance to Saudi backing on this issue. Xi Jinping also used his trip to Saudi Arabia to meet numerous heads of state and government in the region, who gathered in Riyadh for two summits.