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Saudi defense chief in China in bid for help with Houthis, boost military ties

China was a major participant in the World Defense Show in Riyadh earlier this year, and Saudi Arabia signed $4 billion in arms deals with the People’s Republic in 2022.
Saudi Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud meets Zhang Youxia.

Saudi Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud discussed ways to boost relations between Saudi Arabia and China during his first visit to Beijing on Tuesday, as Chinese weapons exports to the kingdom increase. 

Prince Khalid met with his Chinese counterpart, Adm. Dong Jun. Several Saudi military officials were present, including Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Fayyad bin Hamid Al-Ruwaili and Commander of the Strategic Missile Force Lt. Gen. Jarallah bin Mohammed Al-Alweet. On the Chinese side, Dong was joined by several generals and senior figures, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.

Earlier, Prince Khalid met with Zhang Youxia, the vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission.

Why it matters: Grant Rumley, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the reason for Prince Khalid's visit is Riyadh leaning on China to curb attacks by the Houthi rebels in Yemen on ships in the Red Sea

"China has leverage with Iran and has largely successfully protected its own interests vis a vis the Houthi attacks; the Saudis are likely hoping China will be able to apply some pressure on the group," Rumley told Al-Monitor. 

The Iran-backed Houthis have attacked international ships in the strategic waterway for years, but they have significantly increased operations since the start of the Gaza war, causing major disruptions to trade through the Suez Canal. Saudi Arabia backs the internationally recognized Yemeni government in its conflict with the Houthis. 

Rumley, however, cautioned that the Saudis' hopes are "largely misguided, as China has continually demonstrated that its actions in the region rarely extend beyond its own self-interests." 

But another area that could see a boost from the visit is defense ties. "Saudi Arabia has a desire to transform its defense industry and boost local production, and China is willing to share technology in order to boost its sales to the region," he said. "Saudi Arabia has also increasingly looked to alternative weapons suppliers given the bans on weapons sales from European countries and the turbulence in purchasing from the US."

China was present at the World Defense Show in Riyadh in February. The Chinese state-owned defense giant Norinco was among the participants, and China’s J-10 fighter jets flew above the expo as part of a showcase.

Wing Loong drones

The open-source intelligence company Janes reported in February that the Saudi Royal Air Force would acquire the Wing Loong-10B drone, made by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China. The unmanned aerial vehicle was displayed at the World Defense Show.

Saudi Arabia signed $4 billion in new arms agreements with China in 2022, including deals for armed drones, ballistic missiles and anti-drone laser-based systems. However, the kingdom has refrained from making major purchases such as fighter jets, according to Bloomberg. The outlet noted Saudi Arabia's close security relations with the United States as a possible reason for the reluctance to purchase more from China.

The United States remains by far the biggest arms supplier to Saudi Arabia, accounting for more than 75% of the kingdom's exports between 2019 and 2023. France was a distant second with a 7.6% market share, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

China's interest in Saudi Arabia is driven by Beijing's desire to become a major weapons exporter and its broader rivalry with the United States, according to Rumley. 

"China is looking to increase its arms sales globally, and sees the region — and Saudi Arabia in particular — as a consistently top importer of weaponry," he said. "China knows Saudi Arabia is a close security partner of the US, and so any level of defense cooperation it can undertake with Riyadh that creates tensions in Riyadh’s relations with Washington has an additional benefit for Beijing."

Know more: Saudi Arabia and China enjoy robust energy ties. Saudi Arabia is one of China’s top oil suppliers, accounting for 15% of all Chinese imports in 2023, according to CNN. Political ties have also been bolstered by the economic relationship. In March of last year, China brokered the agreement that restored diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia in 2022, while Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last went to China in 2019.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia granted China “Approved Destination Status” starting in July. The designation is a mechanism to facilitate tourism visits and is part of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to attract Chinese tourists, according to the Saudi Press Agency.