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Gulf Arab states draw closer to China as Xi visits Riyadh

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Arab states and China pledged deeper ties at a summit with president Xi Jinping on Friday, with Saudi Arabia saying it would balance its relationships with Beijing and the kingdom’s traditional partner, the US.

Xi wrapped up a three-day stay in the Saudi capital Riyadh, saying China would work more closely with the region and boost oil and gas trade, after a visit the US was watching closely.

The US has had strained ties with Saudi Arabia that hit a low point after the Saudi-led Opec+ cut oil production earlier this year. It hosted the summit just months after president Joe Biden visited the kingdom and pledged that the US would not leave a vacuum in the region to be filled by China, Iran and Russia. Xi, who separately met Saudi Arabia’s leaders, attended a Gulf states summit and an Arab summit.

Both China and Saudi Arabia hailed the meetings as a new chapter in a relationship in which Beijing has grown into the kingdom’s largest trading partner, and Riyadh as China’s biggest oil provider. The two sides signed a comprehensive strategic agreement and more than two dozen deals, including in construction and a broadband contract with China’s Huawei.

The summit “launched a new historical era” in relations with China, said Saudi crown prince and day-to-day ruler Mohammed bin Salman.

Xi said in a speech that China would seek to boost technology co-operation and continue importing “large” amounts of oil from the Gulf, while aiming to import more natural gas. Beijing would push for trading oil and gas in China’s currency, he added.

Saudi officials have privately said they had no issue with trades in China’s digital renminbi currency but that would not extend to oil sales. In Beijing, a Chinese foreign ministry official confirmed at a briefing on Friday that the two sides had conducted their first transaction in renminbi, although its purpose was not immediately clear.

Xi added Beijing would work with the region on 5G technology, something the US has opposed over fears that Huawei’s 5G infrastructure would give the Chinese government critical access.

In a speech last month at a conference in Bahrain, Brett McGurk, the Biden administration’s top Middle East official, warned “there are certain partnerships with China that would create a ceiling to what we can do”.

But Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, said the kingdom, which largely relies on US military weapons sales and security aid, would seek to pursue good relationships with the US and China.

“We don’t see it as a zero-sum game by any means,” he said after the summit.

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, said the announcements from Riyadh on drawing closer to China were not a “course correction”, as Gulf officials say the US has drawn distant from the region while it focuses on other parts of the world.

“It continues a trend,” Alterman said. “Middle Eastern energy producers feel they can’t rely on the United States in the same way, and they think that being closer to China gives them multiple benefits: it puts them closer to the worlds largest oil importer, it gives them access to things the Americans won’t give them, and it makes the Americans a little jealous, perhaps giving them some leverage.”

Additional reporting by Yuan Yang, Maiqi Ding and Mure Dickie

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