The end of the year in the Gulf region was evidently marked by the high-profile visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Saudi Arabia which, alongside consolidating relations between important trade partners, also gave a glimpse of what the post-American Middle East could look like. Leaving mainland in China, where widespread protests against the zero-COVID policy adopted by Beijing were undermining the uncontested rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) before being reversed; and just after securing an unprecedented third term in office, on the 7th of December Xi landed in Riyadh for a three-day visit that drew immense scrutiny not only in Washington but also on the other bank of the Gulf.
In his third visit abroad since the start of the pandemic after his participation in the G20 summit in Indonesia and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Thailand, Xi met with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and, more importantly, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), recently appointed Prime Minister in a move that attested his swift rise to power, while giving him immunity from prosecution for the Khashoggi affair.
Resulting in at least 34 agreements worth about US$50 billion, the visit displayed the deepness of the economic relations, so far mainly based on energy flows. Data shows that Saudi Arabia is China’s largest supplier of crude and that is where the end of the strict lockdown policy adopted by Beijing comes into play.
The Chinese President is looking to relaunch the economy amid concerns over volatile energy markets affected by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the controversial policies adopted by the OPEC+ cartel, which have contributed to worsen the already fragile relations between Riyadh and Washington, especially following the visit of US President Joe Biden to Jeddah this summer.
To make things worse, Saudis’ openness to the idea of trading a small amount of oil and natural gas in renminbi rather than US dollars may have further displeased the Washington, already irked by the flurry of deals signed during Xi’s visit. In particular, by cooperating more with Huawei on cloud computing, data centres and high-tech complexes, Riyadh seems to have pushed aside repeated US’ warnings about security risks that have already marred the relationship with the UAE for the same reason.
More in general, the decision to harmonise the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the Vision 2030 plan introduced by MbS to diversify Saudi’s economy also attest to the multipolar order shaping up not only the Indo-Pacific region but international relations at large. The first China-GCC and China-Arab summits held in Riyadh during Xi’s visit were clearly instrumental to this scope, offering an alternative option to local partners trying to excuse themselves from the renewed great power competition.
This hedging strategy could clearly backfire, considering not only the US’ uniqueness as security provider for the time being, but also, the deep rifts still running along the many fault lines of the region, which China needs to navigate carefully if it wants to shore up support for its Global Security Initiative.
Beijing has already learned the lessons at its expenses, as Iran expressed deep dissatisfaction with the final statement of the China-GCC summit that called for negotiations to solve the territorial dispute over the islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa in the Strait of Hormuz, controlled by Teheran but claimed by the UAE.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region