Xi Jinping will arrive in Riyadh on Wednesday on a long awaited visit to a regional ally that has readied full state pageantry and a round of agreements likely to cement ties between China and Saudi Arabia – and deepen alarm in Washington.
China’s president will meet more than 30 heads of state and business leaders during his three-day visit to the Saudi capital, which is set to lead to a “strategic agreement” between the authoritarian powers. The trip is the culmination of decades of cooperation once based on oil sales, which has grown into bilateral trade of close to $90bn a year.
The reception that awaits Xi is on a scale of that afforded to Donald Trump during the early months of his administration and is in stark contrast to the low key and largely fruitless visit of his successor, Joe Biden, to Jeddah in August.
Biden had arrived in Saudi Arabia seeking assurances over global oil prices, which the kingdom had refused to help lower by cutting supply. He left empty handed and with bedrock ties between the two allies under serious challenge, as Riyadh appeared to support Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Saudi Arabia and Gulf states have been deepening ties with Russia and China over recent years as they question the security partnership that had underpinned relationships over recent decades. The UAE has been particularly aggrieved by what it sees as Washington’s lack of support for attacks on its capital earlier this year by Houthi forces in Yemen, and for the 2017 offensive it co-launched with Riyadh against Houthi groups.
Both sides see a US restriction on arms sales as undermining Washington’s traditional role as underwriter of its security needs.
The kingdom has been rattled by a lack of US response to attacks by Shia militias against its main refinery. The country’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, meanwhile, was angered by Biden’s vow at the outset of his administration to consider him a pariah, after US intelligence agencies concluded that he ordered the assassination of dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
Prince Mohammed’s allies did little to hide their delight after Biden failed to persuade the Crown Prince to open oil pipes and help decrease prices before US midterm elections. On that same trip, Biden pledged that the US would not lose influence to China in the Middle East. “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran,” he said
The contrast to Xi’s reception, however, could not be more marked. China and Saudi Arabia’s already lucrative deals across the technology, industrial, petrochemical and weapons sectors are likely to be significantly expanded, anchoring Beijing’s aegis at a time that the US has repivoted towards security threats in Asia and the war in Ukraine.
The visit offers the most visible platform yet for Riyadh to showcase its pulling power as a trade partner and emerging presence as a global voice to be reckoned with. Beijing is already Riyadh’s biggest trading partner and Saudi Arabia is a member of the belt and road global infrastructure plan.
“We have said for a long time that there are more people to dine with than Washington,” said a senior Saudi official. “That message will be very clear when this visit gets under way. The Chinese do not lecture and they don’t disrespect. They know how to do business.
“The Americans on the other hand have wanted us to choose sides. We will not.”
The US has been unsettled by what it sees as China and Saudi Arabia’s direct support for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. Russia has increased efforts to sell discounted oil to Beijing at a time when it faces crippling western sanctions. Beijing remains heavily dependent on oil for its energy demands and has made no secret of its intent to consolidate energy and political ties with the GCC.
Before the visit, Chinese flags were being hung across Riyadh and in ceremonial halls where Xi will be received. Gulf leaders and business figures were expected to arrive on Wednesday, with many receiving hurried invitations earlier this week.