In April 1999, the airplane carrying the then Prince of Riyadh, now King, Salman bin Abdulaziz, landed in Beijing responding to an invitation by the Mayor of the Beijing Municipal People's Government. The Saudi delegation included a group of senior Saudi officials specialized in infrastructure along with a trade group. As the Saudi Crown Prince, King Salman followed his first visit with a second one in 2014 when he was welcomed by the incumbent Chinese President Xi Jinping and four strategic agreements were signed. Prince Mohammed bin Salman, accompanied his father on that visit, as he was the Chief of the Crown Prince’s Court, before ascending to be the Crown Prince and Prime Minister.
That visit was significant for the new Saudi rulers, particularly for the Crown Prince who was introduced to the Chinese leadership and felt their willingness to move forward with deepening the bilateral relations and extending the ties beyond trade. It marked the beginning of close personal relations that has had a political impact.
China was the world’s top importer from KSA in 2021 at $51 billion (nearly one sixth of Saudi budget revenues or spending in the same year), making China the most prominent partner for Saudi Arabia. On China’s part, it is the top buyer of Saudi oil (although there are other low-price exporters such as Russia), which means that KSA is the most valuable and credible energy supplier for China. While Saudi Arabia deems the economic factor a pivotal part of its foreign relations, isn’t politics the other side of the economy? If political relations aren’t stable, bilateral trade, technical and military cooperation will not thrive.
In his current visit to Riyadh, the Chinese President Xi got a grand reception as he was welcomed by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, in a reflection of the warm bilateral ties.
The Chinese President wrote an article for the Saudi Al-Riyadh newspaper to highlight the deep historical ties between both countries. Citing Chinese travelers’ journeys to the Arabian Peninsula in ancient times, President XI recalled the historic Silk Road that extended from China to west Asia and Europe. He pointed to solidarity and cooperation with the Arab and Gulf community, with particular focus on the strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia, describing Gulf countries as the “energy tank” for the world.
Here's an analysis of the Chinese President’s visit, which is his second one to the country, after a series of official Saudi visits to China. What are the Saudi-Chinese messages implied by this visit? What are the reasons of holding two joint, Arab and Gulf, summits during the visit?
Between Independence and Imposing Agendas
Saudi-Chinese relations are equitable, where both parties enjoy equal status and no agendas or ideologies are imposed. Neither of them harbor a specific ideology to lead the world. Hence, the absence of intervention in each countries’ domestic affairs have largely contributed to boosting relations.
Since the visit was announced, Western political and research circles started to criticize the move and expressed fears over its implications and results. For example, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy published an article on December 7, detailing the US and Western concerns over the strengthened Sino-Saudi partnership. These concerns are focused on nuclear and military cooperation, and the “strained” Saudi-American ties. The article mentioned the missile deal of 1988, and the building of a drone facility in Riyadh in 2017. It also highlighted President Biden’s visit to the Kingdom five months ago, when he told assembled Arab leaders, “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran ... [T]he U.S. is not going anywhere.” The article’s authors, Simon Henderson and Carol Silber, commented that this week’s events will test Biden’s pledge.
Such rhetoric is no longer successful. Imposing agendas and values on other countries, deemed less civilized by the West, won’t help in building stable and scalable relations. In fact, Saudi Arabia will only accept mutually equitable foreign relations.
The recent fierce Western criticism against Saudi Arabia signaled the arrogance of the West. Conversely, China has refrained from any intervention in other countries’ domestic affairs.
The Gulf peoples, particularly the Saudis, have sensed the ease with which friends of the United States may be abandoned. Didn't the former US president say China should guard the Bab al-Mandab Strait because it is the primary customer for Gulf oil, and the United States no longer requires Gulf oil and route protection? The oil markets have changed dramatically as a result of American shale oil, and Saudi Arabia only sells a small amount of oil to the United States. Joe Biden also continued criticizing Saudi Arabia, claiming that it has made American lives difficult by raising oil prices!
By comparison, in his article published in Al-Riyadh, the Chinese president focuses on the "Millennia-old Friendship and Jointly Creating a Better Future," which is also the article's title. In bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and the Arabs, there is a new spirit, a new language, and a remembrance of shared values and a rich history.
The use of the phrase "China-Arab community with a shared future in the new era" also highlights a new language in which China addresses the Arabs from the heart of Saudi Arabia, emphasizing the Chinese and Arab shared values, history, present, and future.
This friendly discourse brings comfort to the Arabs. It contrasts with the Western rhetoric, which promotes a different system of values that may not suit Arabs in some details, and uses those Western values as a compass for Arab-Western relations, as if the relations only go in one direction, without respecting the Arab values and culture.
Thus, the timing of the Sino-Saudi summit, along with other two Gulf and Arab summits, reaffirms Saudi Arabia’s growing political and economic weight, as well as its importance in shaping the future of Arab-Chinese relations. It also emphasizes Riyadh's pivotal role in the Arab decision-making process and in guiding the Arab relations with the Chinese dragon.
Although cooperation between both countries began in the late 1930s, formal diplomatic relations were established between the Saudis and the Chinese in 1990. Over the years, China has gradually pushed the West out of first place in the trade partnership of the two countries.
Since 2007, China has maintained a Contact Office of Chinese Companies (COCC) in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. According to the office's CEO, Wang Xiaofeng, the number of Chinese companies operating in KSA has increased to around 200.
Indeed, Chinese conglomerates such as Huawei, Alibaba, Sinopec, and others have headquarters or representative offices in Saudi Arabia in order to take advantage of additional opportunities.
Furthermore, the Saudi Cloud Computing Company (SCCC) launched its services in June as a result of a Chinese-Saudi alliance that included both Alibaba cloud computing companies (which promised to pump half a billion dollars into the Saudi market within five years), the Saudi Telecom Group, Arabia Capital, as well as the Saudi Company for Artificial Intelligence and the Saudi Information Technology Company.
In the same vein, Ajlan bin Abdulaziz Al Ajlan, President of the Federation of Saudi Chambers, told the Saudi Press Agency that "China is KSA's primary trading partner, and the two countries have strong economic and historical ties, whereas the volume of trade exchange increased by 37% in 2021 to 304.3 billion riyals ($81 billion), giving KSA approximately 26% of China's foreign trade with Arab countries as China's largest partner in West Asia and North Africa." The volume of goods imported and exported between the two countries was 358 billion riyals ($95.5 billion) from January to October 2022, reflecting the strength and diversity of trade between the two countries."
Majalla recently met a Chinese researcher (who preferred to be called John) in an Arab capital, and he says: "China sees Saudi Arabia as a key pillar in its efforts to strengthen ties with the Arab world. Starting this year, I anticipate that trade between the two countries will exceed $100 billion. Although the trade balance favors Saudi Arabia, the opportunities for Saudi and Chinese companies are numerous between the two countries."
Because numbers are the most accurate predictors of commercial performance, the figure of 1.2 trillion riyals ($320 billion) represents the volume of trade exchange between the two countries between 2017 and 2021. As a result, it is a clear indication of unprecedented growth across a wide range of trade and industry sectors.
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is an important part of China's Belt and Road Initiative, which focuses on trillions of dollars in infrastructure investments. During this visit, Saudi companies signed agreements totaling 110 billion riyals (approximately $29.4 billion), all of which aim to improve trade exchange, with the results to be revealed in stages.
CULTURE AND TOURISM
Culture is an important component of Sino-Saudi relations. Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, quoted a hadith from the Prophet Muhammad, saying, “Seek knowledge even if you have to go as far as China,” recalling the memories of the many Arab and Chinese travelers throughout history, who provided fertile material for stories and creative imagination.
Furthermore, approximately 40 Chinese universities teach Arabic language and literature, while four Saudi universities teach Chinese, and Chinese has become an optional subject in eight Saudi elementary schools.
The Chinese president also praised the animation series "Kong Xiaoxi and Hakim," which was co-produced by China and Saudi Arabia.
The need to introduce Arab and Chinese cultures has become necessary, as Arab and Chinese cultural consumers are unfamiliar with the each other’s country. Drama, theatre, and the activation of a translation campaign are critical to strengthening Sino-Saudi relations and possibly producing a cultural economy between the two countries, which is an area where investments can be directed.
On the other hand, Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmed Al Khateeb stated last October that he was "hoping on Chinese tourists" to boost tourism in Saudi Arabia.
Improving destination promotion between the two countries inevitably contributes to increased tourism output and deeper people-to-people relations between the two countries.
A Chinese tourist once told Majalla, "I desperately want to return to Al-Ula region. The magic there is unstoppable." So, when will there be a greater influx of Chinese tourists to KSA, given that KSA already receives 140 million Chinese tourists each year?