Chinese President Xi Jinping is heading to Saudi Arabia on a three-day visit this week as Riyadh bolsters its economic and political ties with Beijing.
The Saudi Press Agency confirmed on Tuesday that King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud has extended an invitation to Xi to visit the kingdom from Dec. 7 to 9. Riyadh is hosting three summits for the visit: a Saudi-Chinese summit, an Arab-Chinese summit, and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-Chinese summit.
Xi will discuss Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 economic modernization plan and China's Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative with King Salman, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and other Saudi delegates. Saudi Arabia and China will sign preliminary agreements worth more than $29 billion, the Saudi Press Agency reported.
GCC and Arab leaders are expected to attend the regional summits, the report said. Tunisian President Kais Saied will travel to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to participate in the meetings, local outlets reported, but other Arab and GCC dignitaries did not immediately confirm their attendance.
Why it matters: Saudi Arabia’s relations with China have strengthened considerably over the past few years. China is Saudi Arabia’s biggest trading partner, and the kingdom is a member of China’s Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative.
There have been a few notable meetings between Chinese and Saudi leaders in recent years. Xi visited Saudi Arabia in 2016, while the king visited Beijing a year later. In 2019, MBS traveled to China where he signed a $10 billion petrochemical deal.
Saudi-China energy relations have particularly improved this year. In August, Saudi Arabia’s state oil company Aramco and its Chinese counterpart Sinopec also signed an agreement on oil, carbon capture and hydrogen. Aramco also finalized a deal in March to develop a major refinery complex in China. Saudi Arabia has also been considering pricing oil sales to China in yuan, as opposed to US dollars.
The Financial Times also reported that China and Saudi Arabia could sign a nuclear power deal during Xi's trip.
Many international media outlets have been framing Xi’s upcoming Saudi visit as a signal and display of strength to the US administration whose own relations have been frayed with Riyadh. During his own trip to Riyadh in July, US President Joe Biden pledged the United States would not cede influence to China in the Middle East.
Know more: There have been several developments in Saudi-China relations in the lead-up to Xi’s visit. Saudi foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi met in October. Wang praised Saudi Arabia for supporting China on political issues, citing Taiwan, Hong Kong and the internment of Chinese Muslims in Xinjiang province.
The diplomat also praised Riyadh's “efforts to maintain stability in the international energy market,” the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
On Monday, acting Saudi Media Minister Majed bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi inaugurated the Arab-China Media Cooperation Forum in Riyadh.
Last week, the Contact Office of Chinese Companies in Saudi Arabia released a report praising Chinese firms’ contributions to Saudi Arabia. The report specifically mentioned the communications, electricity, public transportation and medical sectors, according to Xinhua.
Also last week, the Riyadh-based Center for Research and Knowledge Communication and the China-Arab Studies Center for Reform and Development in Shanghai released a book detailing “Sino-Arab partnership.”
The visit poses a challenge for Washington and President Joe Biden who is growing more weary of China's influence in the region. “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran," the US President said on his visit to Saudi last July.
But as relations tense between Washington and Riyadh over oil supplies and Russia, China sees an opening to deepen its economic and political ties in the Gulf region including with Iran.
The Chinese Embassy in Riyadh did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for comment.