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Xi Jinping hails ‘new era’ in China-Saudi Arabia relationship

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Chinese president Xi Jinping announced a “new era” in Beijing’s relationship with the Gulf region as he met Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on Thursday and the two sides signed partnership deals.

In an opinion piece published in Saudi Arabia’s media, Xi wrote: “The visit will carry forward our traditional friendship, and usher in a new era in China’s relations with the Arab world, with Arab states of the Gulf and with Saudi Arabia.”

Ahead of his welcome in Riyadh by the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler, Xi wrote that Saudi Arabia and China “respect each other’s sovereignty and development path [and] respect each other’s history and cultural traditions”.

His plane was ceremoniously escorted by Saudi Arabian jets before he landed on Wednesday evening for his first visit since 2016. He was received at a royal palace by Prince Mohammed and an honour guard before going into meetings with the prince and his aides on Thursday.

The three-day visit, which will see the Chinese leader attend Arab and Gulf summits, comes at a low point in US-Saudi Arabia relations after the kingdom led Opec+ in oil production cuts, prompting warnings by Washington that it could reassess its ties with Riyadh.

Saudi Arabian and Chinese media reported that the two sides signed a strategic partnership agreement that would see the two countries’ leaders meet every two years. They also penned 34 investment deals in sectors including technology and energy.

The deals included a memorandum of understanding between Huawei and the Saudi communication minister to establish 10 Gbps-speed mobile internet and a cloud-computing facility in the kingdom, as well as construction deals for 300,000 housing units. Huawei’s business dealings in the west have come under scrutiny over security concerns.

Chinese electric vehicle manufacturer Enovate Motors also agreed an MoU with a Saudi Arabian holding company for a vehicle factory in the country that would create 100,000 cars a year.

The US has opposed Huawei’s expansion in the region and recently warned that some sectors of dealings with China could affect co-operation between the US and Arab countries.

Washington has said it would observe the visit, which comes months after US president Joe Biden visited Saudi Arabia and told Arab leaders in a summit that the US would not leave a “vacuum” in the region for China, Russia and Iran to fill.

“We are mindful of the influence that China is trying to grow around the world,” said John Kirby, a spokesman for the US National Security Council, concerning Xi’s visit. “The Middle East is certainly one of those regions where they want to deepen their level of influence.” 

While America was not asking nations to choose between Washington and Beijing, Kirby said, US policies were “better suited to preserving prosperity and security for countries around the world than those that are demonstrated or touted by China”.

Despite Biden’s pledge, Gulf officials have said the US, by far Saudi Arabia’s main security partner and arms supplier, has grown distant as it focuses on other regions. And Saudi officials have balked at playing off the two superpowers, saying they want to diversify their foreign relations.

China is already the kingdom’s largest trading partner, while Saudi Arabia is its biggest supplier of crude. Analysts say Beijing is not seeking to supplant the US in the region, and at any rate would be unable to do so, but aims to expand its trade and influence.

Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding

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