Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will welcome the Chinese leader this week at a critical time in US-Saudi relations, demonstrating Riyadh’s determination to steer the world order regardless of the interests of its Western allies, experts said.
The oil giant’s ruler has returned to the world following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, which strained Saudi-US relations, and has been defiant in the face of US anger over the kingdom’s strong-arm policies and pressure from the kingdom. Washington to help isolate Russia.
In a show of strength as an aspiring leader of the Arab world, Prince Mohammed will also gather rulers from the Middle East and North Africa for a China-Arab summit during President Xi Jinping’s visit that is expected to begin on Tuesday.
“Riyadh is working according to the strategic calculation that it should be with Beijing, because it is now an important economic partner,” said Ayham Kamel, head of the Middle East and North Africa at Eurasia Group.
Although the United States remains the ally of choice for the Gulf countries that depend on their security, Riyadh is developing foreign policies that support global economic reforms as the world moves away from hydrocarbons, which are Saudi lifeblood, analysts said.
“There is a risk that expanding ties with China will lead to (further) rifts in US-Saudi relations… but MBS is not pursuing this lightly,” Kamel said.
Xi’s visit comes at a time when US-Saudi relations are in jeopardy, uncertainty is weighing on global energy markets with the West targeting Russian oil prices and as Washington looks closely at China’s influence in the Middle East.
The Saudi government did not respond to a request for comment on Xi’s visit and plans.
Expressing anger at US criticism of Riyadh’s human rights record, Prince Mohammed said Atlantic Ocean in March that he did not care if US President Joe Biden misunderstood him, saying that Biden should focus on America’s interests.
He said in a statement carried by the Saudi state news agency SPA that month that while Riyadh wants to strengthen its relationship with Washington it may also choose to limit “our interests” – Saudi businesses – in the United States.
Saudi Arabia is expanding economic ties with China. It is China’s top oil supplier, although fellow OPEC+ producer Russia has increased its share of the Chinese market with cheaper oil.
Beijing has also been promoting the use of its yuan for trade instead of the US dollar. Riyadh has previously threatened to stop trading in dollar-denominated oil to counter US legislation that exposes OPEC members to non-compliance charges.
The US-Saudi relationship under the Biden administration, which was already strained because of human rights and the war in Yemen in which Riyadh leads the military alliance, has been strained because of the war in Ukraine and the oil policy of OPEC +.
Fanfare and sales
Diplomats in the region said Xi would receive a warm welcome similar to that shown to then-President Donald Trump when he visited the kingdom in 2017, and in contrast to Biden’s controversial visit in July aimed at improving relations with Riyadh.
Trump met with King Salman at the airport amid protests where he secured more than $100 billion in US military contracts. Biden, who has vowed to make Riyadh a “pariah” over Khashoggi’s murder, mocked his meetings with Prince Mohammed, who punched him instead of shaking hands.
Chinese delegations are expected to sign more deals with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries on energy, defense and investment, diplomats told Reuters.
Prince Mohammed is focused on delivering his Vision 2030 plan to wean the economy off oil by creating new industries, including cars and military equipment as well as cargo, even as foreign investment is slow.
The kingdom is investing heavily in new infrastructure and major tourism projects as well as initiatives like the $500 billion NEOM zone, aid to Chinese construction companies.
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have said they will continue to forge strategic alliances for economic and security cooperation, despite US concerns about their ties to Russia and China.
Prince Mohammed wants to show his community that the kingdom is important to many international powers, said Jonathan Fulton, non-resident director of the Atlantic Council.
“Maybe he’s showing it to the US, but … he’s very concerned about what people in the kingdom think.”
A difficult relationship
Biden promised “results” for Riyadh after the OPEC+ move, but Washington reiterated its support for the security of the kingdom, with US officials emphasizing the “comparative advantage” of the US in building defense structures in the Gulf.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday that Washington wants to ensure that its “good” relationship with Riyadh serves “our interests.”
US officials declined to comment when asked about Saudi-China relations ahead of Xi’s visit.
Washington has said it is concerned about the use of Chinese 5G technology in the Arab Gulf and Chinese businesses in critical areas such as ports, including in the United Arab Emirates which has suspended Chinese port operations over US concerns.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are buying Chinese military equipment and a Saudi company signed an agreement with a Chinese company to produce military equipment in the kingdom.
Saudi expert Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of the Riyadh-based Gulf Research Center, told Saudi TV Asharq News that the Arab countries want to tell their Western allies that they have other options, and that their relationship is based mainly on economic issues.
Although Saudi-Chinese relations appear to be growing “much faster” than with the United States, the actual relations are not the same, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Relationships with China pale in comparison to those with the United States in terms of both complexity and relationship,” he said.