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China's Xi Jinping visits Saudi Arabia to assert power and rival U.S. influence

China's leader Xi Jinping (center) walks with Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman (right), following an official welcoming ceremony at the Palace of Yamamah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday.
Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
China's leader Xi Jinping (center) walks with Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman (right), following an official welcoming ceremony at the Palace of Yamamah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday.

Updated December 8, 2022 at 11:31 AM ET

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — China's leader, Xi Jinping, is in Saudi Arabia for a visit showcasing Beijing's ambitions to expand its influence in the Gulf, a region traditionally seen as a close U.S. security partner.

For Xi, who recently secured a third term in power, the trip is a chance to grow China's foothold in the Middle East and rival the United States. China wants to export more of its technology and deepen its investments in areas like ports, mining, nuclear technology and defense in the Middle East.

For Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the visit is an opportunity to cement his place as the prime minister of a country seen as a regional anchor and heavyweight. Under his lead, Saudi Arabia has resisted picking sides in the rivalry between the U.S. and other global powers. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates announced they mediated Thursday's prisoner swap between the U.S. and Russia. They credited their "mutual and solid friendship" with both Washington and Moscow.

Xi met with Saudi leaders on Thursday, including with King Salman. Saudi Arabia is also hosting summits for Xi with Gulf Arab leaders and heads of state from other Mideast countries on Friday. Ahead of the summits, Xi met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in Riyadh on Thursday.

Xi's visit raises pressure on the U.S. in the Mideast

Over the summer, President Biden visited Saudi Arabia aiming to reassure wary allies and asserting the U.S. presence in the region. He told a gathering of Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia that the U.S. "will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran."

But he was unable to secure greater oil production from the Saudis, who would soon lead an effort to cut oil production by some 2 million barrels a day in a pact with Russia. There were also conflicting reports about what was said between the president and the Saudi crown prince concerning human rights and the killing of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi by agents who worked for Prince Mohammed in late 2018.

From left: King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, U.S. President Biden, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani attend the Jeddah Security and Development Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 16.
/ Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
From left: King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, U.S. President Biden, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani attend the Jeddah Security and Development Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 16.

The U.S. remains concerned that China is encroaching on its sphere of influence in the region. In remarks reported by Reuters and Agence France-Presse, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters this week that China is trying to deepen its level of influence in the Middle East in ways that "are not conducive to preserving the international rules-based order."

"We are not asking nations to choose between the United States and China, but as the president has said many times we believe that in this strategic competition the United States is certainly well poised to lead," Kirby was reported to have said.

Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University who has had ties with the Saudi royal court, wrote in the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news website that China is eroding Washington's role as a regional powerbroker. He noted that China, which has ties with Iran, has positioned itself as a partner to Gulf Arab states by supplying weapons like armed drones that the United States has refused to do.

A chance to assert the Gulf's autonomy

Gulf Arab officials have long expressed concerns that the U.S. is increasingly disengaging from the region and focused on countering China in East Asia.

The Gulf is now ruled by relatively young and assertive leaders in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. While these countries still heavily rely on the United States for their national security needs and weapons sales, they're leveraging this competition to their own advantage, said John Calabrese, an assistant professor at American University. This visit by Xi is an example of how they refuse to be pulled to any one side.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz and Chinese President Xi Jinping sign documents during a meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday.
Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Royal Court/Reuters
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Saudi Royal Court/Reuters
Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz and Chinese President Xi Jinping sign documents during a meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday.

"Gulf leaders understand that the current geopolitical situation invites, it permits a kind of, you know, opportunism on their part," he said. "They now see themselves in a position to leverage their relationship with the United States and, to some extent, to play the U.S. and China against each other in ways that they perceive may benefit their own national interests."

Oil and defense are at the heart of Saudi-China ties

While Saudi Arabia and China are expected to announce billions of dollars in new deals, they are interdependent on one another for oil. The Gulf states rely on China as a top buyer of their oil exports.

"The bottom line here is that China is tethered to the Middle East, to the Gulf in particular, specifically because of its energy security needs," said Calabrese, who also heads the Middle East Asia Project at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Prince Mohammed, however, is seeking to diversify Saudi Arabia's economy away from reliance on oil exports. As part of that larger vision to bolster the kingdom's independence and economic might, he's aiming to build a homegrown Saudi defense industry. China is seen as an important partner in providing the technology and know-how to build out the kingdom's defenses. The kingdom is also looking to China for nuclear technology.

The visit marks only the third time for Xi to travel abroad since the coronavirus pandemic began three years ago. It is also the first time he's left China since protests erupted against his government's COVID-19 lockdown policies. The government responded to those protests by loosening some measures this week, including allowing people to quarantine at home rather than a state facility if they test positive for the virus.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aya Batrawy
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