When Joe Biden arrived in Riyadh in July, no Saudi minister welcomed him at the airport. The US president was cold-shouldered amid tensions between his administration and the Saudis over a range of issues that included oil production and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist. American intelligence officials had concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (popularly known as ‘MBS’) ordered the killing personally.
Biden’s visit didn’t go as smoothly as American diplomats would have wished. Biden bumped fists with MBS but after his departure from Riyadh, he told journalists he had confronted Saudi’s de facto ruler about his role in Khashoggi’s murder.
Saudi officials claimed that they “didn’t hear” Biden chastising MBS. Instead, they insisted that Washington should exert similar pressure on Israel over the death of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian reporter who was killed when covering a raid by Israeli forces in the West Bank in May.
Just a few months after Biden’s visit, OPEC+ (a grouping that comprises the oil cartel plus Russia) cut its oil output, much against Washington’s wishes.
This week it was Chinese President Xi Jinping’s turn to set foot in Saudi Arabia. The contrast between the receptions received was stark. The Chinese leader’s plane was escorted by Saudi air force fighter jets prior to landing in Riyadh. Xi was welcomed on the airport’s tarmac by the Saudi foreign minister, the governor of Riyadh and a couple of key members of the royal family, Xinhua reported.
The news agency added colourfully that Saudi planes had painted the sky in red and yellow (the colour of China’s national flag) to herald Xi’s arrival.
Xi’s four-day stay has been packed with diplomatic events including the China-Arab States Summit and the China-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, as well as the state visit to Saudi Arabia itself.
Plenty of bilateral deals are expected to be signed as well, as Xi will have face time with leaders from 14 Arab states. On Wednesday Chinese and Saudi firms signed 34 deals for investment in green energy, infrastructure, cloud services and other sectors, Saudi state news agency SPA reported. It gave no value for the contracts, but had earlier said the two countries would seal agreements worth $30 billion, Reuters noted.
Saudi Arabian energy minister Abdulaziz bin Salman announced that a regional centre for Chinese factories was planned in order to bolster energy supply chains. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has strong and close strategic relations with China in many fields, the most important of which is energy,” the SPA quoted him as saying. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will remain China’s credible and reliable partner in this field.”
Saudi Arabia is China’s top oil supplier. Xi’s visit, described as “an epoch-making milestone” by the Chinese foreign ministry, took place after EU and G7 governments imposed a price cap on Russian oil. The uncertainties mean oil producers in the Middle East are keen to foster closer ties with China.
Wei Jianguo, a researcher at the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, told the Global Times that many Gulf states are ready to talk to China on issues like yuan-denominated oil contracts.
Most analysts don’t expect such a breakthrough to happen this year – although Russia and China have already signed agreements to settle more trade with either the yuan or the Russian rouble.
China would also like to expand the reach of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (of which Russia is also a founding member) in the Middle East. Iran passed legislation late last month to join the SCO. Saudi Arabia is currently a SCO dialogue partner and has shown interest in upgrading its status, the South China Morning Post noted.
Washington is taking note of China’s efforts to expand its geopolitical footprint in the region. The White House said Xi’s visit this week was an example of Chinese attempts to exert influence, but insisted on Wednesday that it wouldn’t change American policies in the Middle East.
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