The significance of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia cannot be understood in isolation from the symbolic messages it entails.
The Chinese President was received with a standing ovation and awarded an honorary doctorate from King Saud University, in contrast to the apathy that US President Joe Biden experienced during his visit to the Kingdom last July. From that, we can easily conclude that Washington is no longer the only most important partner for Riyadh and the region.
Maneuver in the margins
The Chinese president’s visit to Saudi Arabia included 3 summits (Chinese-Saudi, Chinese-Gulf, and Chinese-Arab), in arrangements quite similar to what happened during the US president’s visit last summer, reflecting the growing relations of the Kingdom, the Gulf and the Arab world with China, which has become a player cannot be ignored in global political and economic issues. These summits say nothing but that Riyadh now considers Beijing equally important as the United States.
While some view the Chinese president’s visit in light of Saudi Arabia’s strategy based on diversification and balance in strategic relations and partnerships, so that it becomes a focal point between East and West, it can be safely said that the visit is a Saudi and Gulf attempt to benefit from the margins of the US preoccupation with the war on Ukraine, to establish a policy based on the economy and moving in the margins of the voids at the table of the superpowers and to exploit international contradictions.
We will also not hesitate to say that the Kingdom’s signing of a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with China indicates that Saudi Arabia is maneuvering in those margins to the maximum extent possible. This occurs in light of the decline in relations between Washington and the Arab world in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular, to the lowest levels in the midst of disagreements over assessing the situation in oil market, and the Arab countries’ rejection of the idea of establishing a regional military alliance with the United States.
Turning towards the east
This does not mean the collapse of relations between the two parties, for no matter how much the Saudi-American relations witnessed ebbs and flows, the relations between the two parties remain stable and solid. However, the tensions that the world was exposed to, and the changing features of the geopolitical map, prompted the Kingdom to accelerate the pace of diversifying its fields of cooperation and partners, and this will not be achieved without China.
There has been a Saudi and Gulf trend for years towards the East, without neglecting the strategic relations that unite these countries with the West, especially the United States.
Over the past 5 years, China has become the most important trading partner of the Kingdom.
On the Arab level, the visit is also very important in the history of Chinese-Arab relations, as it comes at a time when the world is witnessing several crises, including energy and food security and other challenges such as climate change, which will contribute to consolidating relations and strengthening the strategic partnership between the two parties.
However, all of this should not keep us away from reading the Chinese summits in Riyadh apart from the deep geopolitical changes that are taking place at the regional level and a state of imbalance in general, which fuels a feverish race for influence.
Chinese role – not just a trading partner anymore
For the region, China is no longer just a trading partner. Chinese diplomacy has already begun its way to thorny regional problems, benefiting from its relations with conflicting parties such as the Palestinians, the Israelis, Iran and Saudi Arabia, although currently it tends to focus on 2 main axes:
- Providing the impetus for the projects of the “Belt and Road Initiative” in the region.
- Creating congruence in positions in order to resist the US pressure to impose the regime it wants on the world using economic sanctions and military provocations.
Despite the importance of the Chinese president’s visit to Saudi Arabia, as well as the three summits that were included in the visit, serious questions arise about the nature and limits of the Chinese role at the political level in a region crowded with tension and conflict factors.
While some believe that Beijing will limit cooperation with the countries of the region to oil and gas diplomacy and trade in general, others believe that China will pursue a path in the middle that will move its diplomacy to a higher stage of intertwining in various fields including security, weapons and full strategic partnership, without getting involved in the region’s classic conflicts.
At the same time, there are dilemmas Saudi Arabia faces in relation to how it can develop its relations with China, while avoiding alarming Washington.
I believe that Riyadh will overcome these dilemmas with the completion of the features of its foreign policy that have been taking shape years ago, specifically since the appointment of Prince Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince.
Whoever closely monitors Saudi foreign policy moves during the past few years will make sure that Riyadh does not seek to overthrow the alliance with the United States, nor to establish a new alliance with China, but seeks to impart a new independent tendency in its foreign policy.
The features of this tendency were manifested in pursuing an independent oil policy, pursuing an independent defense policy and rejecting the proposal of the American-Israeli military alliance, as well as the tendency to diversify the sources of weapons, and the settlement of defense military industries instead of excessive reliance on US weapons.
Riyadh did all of this without losing the alliance with Washington. Therefore it will be easy for it to develop relations with China within the framework of that independent policy and without appearing to turn against Washington.
According to a Saudi source, Riyadh does not risk relations with the United States.
“the US is aware of the goals of these Saudi moves. Riyadh has been trying to fill the regional leadership vacuum in the Arab world since 2 decades ago”, the source said.
The source indicated that the region paid a heavy price due to the attempts of external regional powers to fill that vacuum.
“The Kingdom has surplus economic and diplomatic power that is trying to maximize its usefulness in achieving stability and reducing tension in the region. This will only be achieved by establishing regional and international alliances and partnerships. Saudi-Chinese relations may be a starting point on this path”, he added.
“This path is very important in light of China’s strong relations with the Kingdom’s regional rivals, whether Iran or Israel, and in light of a consistent Chinese position in support of Palestinian rights that is in line with the Arab Peace Initiative, and China’s firm convictions in the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of countries”, he said.