.
I

n early December 2022, China President Xi Jinping paid a multiple-day state visit to Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. With this trip, he aimed to expand multilateral ties with the Arab world, particularly with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Fourteen Arab leaders from North Africa and the Arabian peninsula attended the event, although the dialogue between the Chinese president and Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was the most anticipated. Many issues were on the table, spanning from energy to security cooperation.

After Xi's visit, China and Saudi Arabia released a 4,000 words joint statement underlining the areas of mutual concerns and future cooperation, such as infrastructure, space research, digital economy, and the wars in Yemen and Ukraine. However, energy still plays a prominent role, especially in a period of global crisis and increasing prices. President Xi Jinping promised to keep buying oil from the GCC countries while enhancing collaboration and investments with Saudi oil giant Aramco.  

The meeting, and particularly security talks, has alarmed Washington. In recent years, the GCC countries have become remarkably intolerant of some U.S. regional policies, such as the attempt to revive the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). Severe condemnations for killing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi also have strained personal ties between U.S. President Joe Biden and Mohammed bin Salman. According to many experts, GCC countries looking eastward for arms supply were the natural consequence of these divergences. Local media reported that Saudi Arabia bought $4 billion in weapons from China in November, including anti-ship missiles, ground systems, and drones.

In early 2022, Biden tried—but failed—to push OPEC+ to increase oil production by influencing Saudi Arabia after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. When the failure of the diplomatic mission became clear, he declared he was ready to "re-evaluate" relations with the Saudi kingdom. In addition, shortly after Xi met with Mohammed bin Salman, the U.S. National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, put additional pressure on its Arab partners: "We believe that many of the things [China] is trying to pursue and the manner in which they're trying to pursue it is not conducive to preserving the international rules-based order."

The Chinese leadership is aware of these U.S.-Gulf disagreements. For this reason, during the visit, Xi took the opportunity to underline China’s commitment to the so-called "non-interference in mutual affairs" principle, a Cold War legacy adopted by China to deal with other countries without considering domestic affairs. China has never abandoned it, mainly because it is a shield from the increasing criticism of human rights abuses within its borders. Many of its Arab counterparts are eager to embrace it for the same reason.  

Iran was the other major player indirectly involved in the China-GCC summit. It is well known that the Gulf countries consider the Islamic Republic an enemy, while China has assumed a more pragmatic approach towards it. During the visit days, the Iranian leadership carefully monitored what was happening in Riyadh, fearing for a rapprochement between their ally and Arab enemies. The reaction was almost immediate. After the 4,000-word joint statement release, Iran's foreign ministry summoned China's ambassador to Tehran in what has later described as a simple "visit" to downscale the political pressure on it.

Many experts underlined that this trip could mark a turning point in Arab-China relations. It has undoubtedly impacted the Middle Eastern geopolitical dynamics, but it is far from a game-changer. After its rise as a rich, oil-exporting area, the Gulf Arab countries aimed to maintain good relations with the three superpowers with regional interests, i.e., Russia, China, and the United States. Over the years, they got closer to one or another depending on the circumstances and political advantages. This time the situation does not seem to be any different.

In conclusion, China seems to be the real winner of the meeting. Xi strengthened economic and political ties with China’s Middle Eastern partners at the expense of the United States, especially in a period of growing domestic tensions due to the Covid-zero policy. At least formally, China does not believe that a "power vacuum" needs to be filled in the region, preferring to focus on economic development and security concerns. However, in recent decades, China has aimed to influence its partners' policies by leveraging economic interdependence. There is no reason to think that the Middle East is excluded from this grand strategy.

About
Elia Preto Martini
:
Elia Preto Martini is an Italian journalist covering European and Middle Eastern affairs. He holds a master's degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Catholic University in Milan and previously worked in foreign policy think tanks and research centers. On Twitter: @epretomartini.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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Xi’s Visit to Saudi Arabia and the Future of China-GCC Cooperation

Saudi Arabia. Photo by YUNUS A KHALIFAH via Unsplash.

January 6, 2023

In early December 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a multiple-day state visit to Saudi Arabia. The meeting and security talks aimed to expand multilateral ties between China and the Arab world, alarming the United States, writes Elia Preto Martini.

I

n early December 2022, China President Xi Jinping paid a multiple-day state visit to Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. With this trip, he aimed to expand multilateral ties with the Arab world, particularly with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Fourteen Arab leaders from North Africa and the Arabian peninsula attended the event, although the dialogue between the Chinese president and Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was the most anticipated. Many issues were on the table, spanning from energy to security cooperation.

After Xi's visit, China and Saudi Arabia released a 4,000 words joint statement underlining the areas of mutual concerns and future cooperation, such as infrastructure, space research, digital economy, and the wars in Yemen and Ukraine. However, energy still plays a prominent role, especially in a period of global crisis and increasing prices. President Xi Jinping promised to keep buying oil from the GCC countries while enhancing collaboration and investments with Saudi oil giant Aramco.  

The meeting, and particularly security talks, has alarmed Washington. In recent years, the GCC countries have become remarkably intolerant of some U.S. regional policies, such as the attempt to revive the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). Severe condemnations for killing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi also have strained personal ties between U.S. President Joe Biden and Mohammed bin Salman. According to many experts, GCC countries looking eastward for arms supply were the natural consequence of these divergences. Local media reported that Saudi Arabia bought $4 billion in weapons from China in November, including anti-ship missiles, ground systems, and drones.

In early 2022, Biden tried—but failed—to push OPEC+ to increase oil production by influencing Saudi Arabia after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. When the failure of the diplomatic mission became clear, he declared he was ready to "re-evaluate" relations with the Saudi kingdom. In addition, shortly after Xi met with Mohammed bin Salman, the U.S. National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, put additional pressure on its Arab partners: "We believe that many of the things [China] is trying to pursue and the manner in which they're trying to pursue it is not conducive to preserving the international rules-based order."

The Chinese leadership is aware of these U.S.-Gulf disagreements. For this reason, during the visit, Xi took the opportunity to underline China’s commitment to the so-called "non-interference in mutual affairs" principle, a Cold War legacy adopted by China to deal with other countries without considering domestic affairs. China has never abandoned it, mainly because it is a shield from the increasing criticism of human rights abuses within its borders. Many of its Arab counterparts are eager to embrace it for the same reason.  

Iran was the other major player indirectly involved in the China-GCC summit. It is well known that the Gulf countries consider the Islamic Republic an enemy, while China has assumed a more pragmatic approach towards it. During the visit days, the Iranian leadership carefully monitored what was happening in Riyadh, fearing for a rapprochement between their ally and Arab enemies. The reaction was almost immediate. After the 4,000-word joint statement release, Iran's foreign ministry summoned China's ambassador to Tehran in what has later described as a simple "visit" to downscale the political pressure on it.

Many experts underlined that this trip could mark a turning point in Arab-China relations. It has undoubtedly impacted the Middle Eastern geopolitical dynamics, but it is far from a game-changer. After its rise as a rich, oil-exporting area, the Gulf Arab countries aimed to maintain good relations with the three superpowers with regional interests, i.e., Russia, China, and the United States. Over the years, they got closer to one or another depending on the circumstances and political advantages. This time the situation does not seem to be any different.

In conclusion, China seems to be the real winner of the meeting. Xi strengthened economic and political ties with China’s Middle Eastern partners at the expense of the United States, especially in a period of growing domestic tensions due to the Covid-zero policy. At least formally, China does not believe that a "power vacuum" needs to be filled in the region, preferring to focus on economic development and security concerns. However, in recent decades, China has aimed to influence its partners' policies by leveraging economic interdependence. There is no reason to think that the Middle East is excluded from this grand strategy.

About
Elia Preto Martini
:
Elia Preto Martini is an Italian journalist covering European and Middle Eastern affairs. He holds a master's degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Catholic University in Milan and previously worked in foreign policy think tanks and research centers. On Twitter: @epretomartini.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.