Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s two holiest cites: Mecca and Medina, both visited by millions of pilgrims every year.
So you might think its crown prince would have something to say about China’s alleged internment of up to a million Muslims – mainly Uighurs – in camps in the western region of Xinjiang.
But that wasn’t what happened when Mohammed bin Salman visited Beijing last week. Instead he told Chinese President Xi Jinping that there is “no divergence” between the two nations. “We respect and support China’s rights to take counter-terrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security,” Xinhua reported him as saying.
Despite its prominent role in the Muslim world Saudi Arabia hasn’t always been vocal about the rights of non-Arab Muslims. For example, it has sent dozens of stateless Rohingya back to Bangladesh despite the United Nations asking Riyadh to grant them refugee status.
On the other hand, it does style itself as a leader of the Islamic world. And several other majority-Muslim nations – Turkey, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Indonesia – have let it be known they are unhappy with some of China’s policies towards its Muslim minorities.
The biggest issue is the camps in Xinjiang. Beijing calls them “vocational education centres” and says they have been created to stop the spread of radical Islam. Access to the camps is limited but the UN has said it is credible that up to one million people are housed in them.
Beijing says people are taken there so they can be taught useful skills like sewing, hairdressing and better Mandarin, which helps with their integration into the local economy. But overseas Uighurs refute the claims, arguing that academics and professionals, as well as people who already speak good Chinese, are also being held.
MBS, as the Saudi prince is commonly known, isn’t said to have raised any of these concerns during his visit. Instead his trip through Pakistan, India and China seems to have been more focused on strengthening alternative alliances in the east.
Although older allies such as the US and the UK continue to work with the Saudis in some areas, they have been holding MBS at arm’s length since the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October.
So he is looking for allies beyond the West. “He understood that human rights violators generally find absolution in Beijing. And he must have understood that if he, as guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites, absolved China of its anti-Muslim depredations, he would be especially welcome,” wrote the Washington Post in a fiery opinion piece last Sunday.
More of his agenda was taken up by business issues. The Saudi state-run oil company Aramco announced during the trip a joint venture with Chinese defence conglomerate Norinco and Panjin Sincen to build a $10 billion refinery in Panjin in northern Liaoning. Aramco said it would also acquire a 9% stake in Zhejiang Petrochemical, which is owned by Zhejiang Rongsheng Holding Group.
Reuters reports that the Saudis are also planning to boost oil exports to China by 1.5 million barrels a day (more than double current levels), while local media outlets including Caixin added that the kingdom was ready to rely on Huawei for its rollout of 5G technology next year (see page 1 for more on this topic).
Meanwhile Turkey has continued its criticism of the Xinjiang camps. Speaking at a UN human rights meeting in Geneva the Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called for a distinction “between terrorists and innocent people”. Last month Turkey said the camps were “a great shame for humanity” and called on Beijing to close them (see WiC441).
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