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The Takeaway: Xi's Saudi Arabia trip sends a message to US

Plus, the Biden administration gears up for next week’s summit of African leaders and warns that Iran is still fueling Yemen’s war.
China's President Xi Jinping (R) greeted by the Governor of Riyadh province Prince Faisal bin Bandar al-Saud (L) at King Khalid International Airport

Five months after his frosty fist-bump with President Joe Biden, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is rolling out the red carpet for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who arrived in Riyadh on Wednesday evening for a three-day trip underscoring Beijing’s growing role in the Persian Gulf. 

Xi, who last visited Saudi Arabia in 2016, will take part in summits with the leaders of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council and other Arab states, where the Chinese delegation is expected to sign a flurry of deals.

The visit comes as relations between Washington and Riyadh are in disarray following the OPEC+ decision in October to slash oil production by 2 million barrels per day, despite US warnings that the cuts would benefit Russia. 

A fuming Biden administration vowed to re-evaluate the decades-long US partnership with Saudi Arabia, already strained over the kingdom’s rights record, military campaign in Yemen and murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Congressional Democrats responded to the OPEC+ cuts with calls to restrict arms sales and security cooperation with Riyadh.  

For China, the latest friction in the US-Saudi relationship has created an opening. 

Robert Mogielnicki, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, described the trip to Al-Monitor as providing “an opportunity for President Xi to display a different state of relations that doesn’t have visible tensions and obvious barriers to closer ties.”

Chinese-Saudi economic relations have deepened in recent decades, with China considered Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner and biggest purchaser of Saudi oil. Ahead of Xi’s visit, the official Saudi Press Agency reported that Riyadh and Beijing would ink preliminary agreements this week worth more than $29 billion

In defending his much-criticized visit to the Saudi city of Jeddah this July, Biden said engaging Saudi leaders would put the United States “in the best possible position to outcompete China.”  

But as Salim A. Essaid reports, the GCC is increasingly looking eastward for economic alternatives. Chinese bilateral trade with Iran and the GCC states totaled $248 billion in 2021 — four times those countries’ trade with the United States. China has also made inroads into the region's armed drone market, raising alarm bells in Washington. 

“The administration is warning countries not to have a strong relationship with China, but what is the US offering?” a high-level Arab diplomat told Al-Monitor. “China is offering us concrete things.” 

Despite its flourishing trade relationship with Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, China’s security role in the region remains limited when compared to the United States. 

“They don't have the huge military bases in the region, a permanent deployment of troops and materiel, and a long history of selling and training and equipping these countries,” Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, said in an interview with Al-Monitor. 

“It’s clear that the Chinese are trying to expand their reach beyond trade into politics and into security,” Haykel added. “So they will be opportunistic and take advantage of where the US  seems to fail to deliver on its promises.” 

Asked about China’s expanding ties with Gulf partners, State Department spokesperson Ned Price told Al-Monitor that the administration seeks to “make the United States the most attractive choice in terms of what we bring to the table." 

“The US has encouraged its partners to see China for what it is: as a transactional power out for its own interests,” said Michael Singh, a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council and managing director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The difficulty for Washington is that the United States is increasingly seen as a transactional rather than strategic partner as well,” Singh said. 

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US unveils invite list for Africa summit 

The Biden administration is gearing up to host the US-Africa Leader Summit next week, bringing together African leaders — including some autocrats — for a conference that it says will reinforce a shared commitment to democracy and human rights.  

The administration invited 49 African governments to the Dec. 13-15 summit, Judd Devermont, the National Security Council's senior director for African affairs, told reporters Wednesday. Excluded from the guest list were countries suspended by the African Union — Sudan, Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso — and Eritrea, a country with which the United States lacks diplomatic relations.  

Tunisian President Kais Saied, whose power grab alarmed the Biden administration, is expected to attend the summit, which comes days before the North African country holds closely watched parliamentary elections. The administration also extended an invite to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, under whom human rights have sharply deteriorated in Egypt. 

Iran fuels Yemen war as protests rage 

As the Iranian regime faces pressure at home, it's lashing out in Yemen. US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking told the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Middle East panel on Tuesday that the Islamic Republic has “not changed its strategic calculus in Yemen,” where the Iran-backed Houthi rebels have fought the Saudi-backed government for control of the war-torn country.

“They continue to see Yemen as an easy win for them, and they continue to fuel the conflict through training, through the provision of lethal materiel,” Lenderking said.  

The Biden administration hopes to revive the truce agreement between Yemen’s warring parties that collapsed in October after six months. Tehran had expressed support for the fragile truce, despite continued accusations from Washington that it is supplying the Houthis with weapons in violation of a UN arms embargo.

Last month, the US Navy and Coast Guard intercepted a ship in the Gulf of Oman headed from Iran to Yemen with enough explosive materials on board to fuel more than a dozen medium-range ballistic missiles.

“I think until the stakes are raised enough on the Iranians, they will continue to behave in this fashion,” Lenderking said. “I fear that the pressure that the regime is under is not going to propel the Iranians to do better in Yemen.”

 More top stories from our contributors 

• Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu is set to push through several laws that his ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox partners demanded as a condition of their coalition participation, Ben Caspit writes. 

• The leader of the Sadrist movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, is again taking aim at Iraq’s LGBTQ population, reports Mustafa Saadoun

• Bijan Khajehpour writes that Iran’s current regime has failed to maintain the social capital it generated decades ago with lower-income Iranians.  

• Turkey’s opposition alliance holds only a small lead against the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan-led ruling coalition, a new Al-Monitor/Premise poll suggests.

• For Al-Monitor PRO subscribers, Marc Español explains how poor water governance is partially to blame for Egypt’s severe water deficit. 

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