RIYADH: Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday on a visit Beijing hailed as its biggest diplomatic initiative in the Arab world, as Riyadh expands global alliances beyond a longstanding partnership with the West.
The meeting between the global economic powerhouse and Gulf energy giant comes as Saudi ties with Washington are strained by US criticism of Riyadh’s human rights record and Saudi support for oil output curbs before the November midterm elections.
The White House said on Wednesday that Xi’s visit was an example of Chinese attempts to exert influence and that this would not change US policy towards the Middle East.
“We are mindful of the influence that China is trying to grow around the world,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters.
China, the world’s biggest energy consumer, is a major trade partner of Gulf oil and gas producers. Bilateral ties have expanded under the region’s economic diversification push, raising US concerns about growing Chinese involvement in sensitive infrastructure in the Gulf.
Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said on Wednesday that Riyadh would remain a “trusted and reliable” energy partner for Beijing and that the two countries would boost cooperation in energy supply chains by establishing a regional centre in the kingdom for Chinese factories.
Saudi Arabia is China’s top oil supplier and Xi’s visit takes place while uncertainty hangs over energy markets after Western powers imposed a price cap on sales of oil from Russia, which has been increasing volumes to China with discounted oil.
The Chinese delegation is expected to sign deals worth $30 billion with Riyadh, Saudi state media had said.
Xi was met on arrival by the governor of Riyadh, the kingdom’s foreign minister and the governor of the sovereign wealth fund PIF. The Saudi cabinet was meeting on Wednesday to approve the 2023 state budget of the world’s top oil exporter.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is expected to offer Xi a lavish welcome, in contrast with the low-key reception for US President Joe Biden whose censure of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler formed the backdrop for a strained meeting in July.
Xi will hold bilateral talks with Saudi Arabia and Riyadh will later host a wider meeting with Gulf Arab states and a summit with Arab leaders which will be “an epoch-making milestone in the history of the development of China-Arab relations”, foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said.
Beijing hopes it will make a strong statement on strengthening “unity and cooperation”, Mao added.
For Riyadh, frustrated by what it sees as Washington’s gradual disengagement from the Middle East and a slow erosion of its security guarantees, China offers an opportunity for economic gains without the tensions which have come to cloud the US relationship.
“Beijing does not burden its partners with demands or political expectations and refrains from interfering in their internal affairs,” Saudi columnist Abdulrahman Al-Rashed wrote in the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.
Unlike Washington, Beijing retains good ties with Riyadh’s regional rival Iran, another supplier of oil to China, and has shown little interest in addressing Saudi political or security concerns in the region.
Saudi officials have said that regional security would be on the agenda during Xi’s visit. The United States has for decades been Saudi Arabia’s main security guarantor and remains its main defence supplier, but Riyadh has chafed at restrictions on US arms sales to the kingdom.
Riyadh has said it would continue to expand partnerships to serve economic and security interests, despite US reservations about Gulf ties with both Russia and China.