Saudi Arabia and China signed a strategic partnership agreement on Thursday during a visit by the Chinese leader Xi Jinping to the kingdom, underlining the growing ties between Beijing and a longstanding American ally that is seeking greater self-reliance.
Mr. Xi held talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 37, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, in the first of a series of summits planned for the Chinese president’s three-day visit. After his bilateral meetings with Saudi officials, Mr. Xi is expected to attend twin summits with leaders from other Gulf, Arab and African countries, including Egypt, Djibouti and Iraq. The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, is also expected to join.
“This will be the largest and highest-level diplomatic event between China and the Arab world since the founding of the People’s Republic of China,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Mao Ning, told reporters on Wednesday. “It will be an epoch-making milestone in the history of China-Arab relations.”
Saudi Arabia has long been a close ally of the United States, but its ties to China have been strengthening rapidly, turning what was once a mostly oil-based relationship into a more complex one involving arms sales, technology transfers and infrastructure projects. That shift predates the leadership of Prince Mohammed, who became heir to the throne in 2017: China eclipsed the United States as Saudi Arabia’s main trading partner years ago.
But Prince Mohammed has accelerated efforts to diversify Saudi Arabia’s alliances, trying to move beyond its reliance on the United States as its main security guarantor and weapons supplier to forge a more independent path.
Some of that is because of growing perceptions among officials, scholars and businesspeople in Saudi Arabia and the broader Middle East that the United States has lost interest in their region and is a superpower in long-term decline.
“I still think that the world is living within an American international security order,” though it is “stumbling quite frequently,” said Mohammed Alyahya, a Saudi fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. “The worry is what will come in five years or 10 years.”
Saudi Arabia’s ties with the United States have been especially strained in the past few years, with President Biden pledging on the campaign trail to treat the kingdom like a “pariah” and pressing Prince Mohammed about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Saudi citizen killed by Saudi agents in Istanbul in 2018.
Early in his administration, Mr. Biden released a U.S. intelligence report that said Prince Mohammed had most likely ordered the killing — a charge the crown prince denies. More recently, the two countries have clashed over a decision to cut oil production by the OPEC Plus cartel, which Saudi Arabia effectively leads.
The official Saudi Press Agency reported that King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Mr. Xi had met and signed a “comprehensive strategic partnership” agreement, without providing further details.
Under the agreement, the two sides agreed to hold meetings between their heads of state every two years, according to the Chinese news agency Xinhua. Beijing also agreed to list Saudi Arabia as a destination for group travel and to expand cultural and people-to-people exchanges, Mr. Xi said on Thursday during his talks with Prince Mohammed.
Other pacts signed by officials during the state visit included a memorandum of understanding on hydrogen energy and an “alignment plan” between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Saudi Arabia’s economic diversification program, the Saudi Press Agency report said.
Upon arrival on Wednesday, Mr. Xi was met by a grander reception than Mr. Biden received in July, when the American president visited the coastal city of Jeddah, partly in a bid to repair ties with the Saudi government.
Footage of Mr. Xi’s reception on Wednesday showed jets flying overhead with smoke trails in the red and yellow colors of the Chinese flag.
On Thursday, he was taken to the palatial royal court, where his car, a luxury Chinese sedan, was escorted by horse riders carrying Saudi and Chinese flags. Prince Mohammed greeted him with a warm handshake, contrasting with Mr. Biden’s greeting of a fist bump.
The crown prince’s moves to deepen relationships with countries like China, Russia and South Korea are partly driven by his desire to establish Saudi Arabia a power in its own right, rather than an expectation that any of them could replace the United States. In that context, the pomp and circumstance around Mr. Xi’s visit is as much a signal to his domestic and regional audiences as it is to the United States. Many officials in the Gulf are preparing for what they believe is an emerging multipolar world, in which the United States no longer plays as central a role as it has since World War II.
“The American hegemony today over the international order won’t continue, in my estimation,” Anwar Gargash, a diplomatic adviser to the president of the neighboring United Arab Emirates, said at a public lecture earlier this year. “China has become a central economic player, a central technological player, a very important political actor.”
Prince Mohammed wants to diversify the oil-dependent kingdom’s economy, develop a civilian nuclear program and build a robust local defense industry. Securing technology and know-how from China is key to those goals, and Saudi pundits often compare the kingdom’s economic transformation to China’s decades ago.
ٍSaudi and Chinese companies signed 34 agreements on Wednesday in fields including information technology, genetics, mining, hydrogen energy and manufacturing. One Saudi firm partnered with a Chinese company to set up an electric vehicle plant in the kingdom.
Huawei, the telecommunications conglomerate targeted by American sanctions, signed a memorandum of understanding with a Saudi government ministry, partly to enable Huawei to build a data center in the kingdom.
At a conference in neighboring Bahrain last month, Brett McGurk, the top U.S. National Security Council official for Middle East policy, cautioned that “certain partnerships” with China will “create a ceiling” for what the U.S. is able to provide its allies.
“But thus far, we are not seeing that type of relationship that is getting in the way of what we are working here to build,” he said.
Source: By Vivian Nereim for the New York Times