Chinese president Xi Jinping landed in Riyadh on Wednesday to meet leaders from the kingdom and Arab countries, as Beijing boosts its ties to a region viewed by Washington as within its sphere of influence.
Xi was met at the airport by the governor of Riyadh and other officials. He will attend Gulf and Arab summits during the three-day visit.
The visit, Xi’s first since 2016, comes as the kingdom’s relationship with Washington is strained over oil production cuts and just months after President Joe Biden vowed in a speech during his visit to Saudi Arabia that the US would not leave a vacuum in the Middle East to be filled by China, Russia, and Iran.
Saudi Arabia has traditionally been one of the US’s closest partners in the region, and relies heavily on American military aid. But the increasingly assertive kingdom has also looked to build closer ties with China, its largest trading partner, and Russia, with whom it leads the Opec+ grouping.
“This will be the largest and highest-level diplomatic event between China and the Arab world since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It will be an epoch-making milestone in the history of China-Arab relations,” a Chinese foreign ministry official told Chinese TV ahead of Xi’s arrival.
Saudi and Chinese officials have provided little detail of deals expected to be signed during the visit, but they may range from trade and investment to technology and nuclear energy.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries like the United Arab Emirates count on Washington as a supplier of military hardware and protection. The US material would be almost impossible to replace with what China has to offer. Yet that has not stopped them from moving closer to Beijing on co-operation in trade, technology, and even ballistic missile knowhow and armed drones.
Washington will be closely following the visit, having warned that certain areas of partnership between the Gulf countries and China would affect co-operation with the US.
“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 at a press briefing. “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 pick 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”.
Nissa Felton, senior manager at Janes IntelTrak, a consultancy, said that while China was not presently a threat to the historic US role as regional security provider, “increasing political ties, whether at the top of government, exercised through votes in international organisations like the UN or pursuing joint strategic initiatives . . . is potentially problematic for US long-term interests”.
Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding and Felicia Schwartz