Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday for a visit that represents the increasing influence of Beijing upon the United States’ top Gulf ally. 

Royal Saudi Air Force fighter jets escorted the visiting leader’s plane after it entered the country’s airspace. Upon landing, Xi received a ceremonial welcoming with a rolled-out carpet and was greeted by the governor of Riyadh and the Saudi minister of foreign affairs.

The next day, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who serves as the kingdom’s prime minster, received the Chinese president in a magisterial ceremony, with his car escorted by members of the Saudi Royal Guard riding on horses, carrying the two countries’ flags. 

MBS welcomed Xi with “a warm smile,” according to Reuters, quite a contrast to the offish greeting and fist-bump extended to U.S. President Joe Biden when he arrived in the Gulf in July. 

The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia under Biden is overshadowed by an ongoing energy crisis, different views about how to deal with the Iranian threat and the implications of the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Last year, Biden declassified an intelligence report that found MBS had approved an operation to murder Khashoggi. As foreign heads of state have immunity in U.S. courts, Washington federal judge John Bates on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit against MBS, despite a “strong” and “meritorious” argument that the prince was behind the murder.

On Thursday, Xi also met with 86-year-old King Salman and signed a bilateral strategic partnership agreement with Saudi Arabia, reportedly worth $30 billion USD.

According to CNN, China is Saudi Arabia’s biggest client, with imports that exceeded $50 billion last year – more than 18% of the kingdom’s total exports. The U.S., on the other hand, imports less oil from Saudi Arabia now than it did years ago – from 22% of its oil in 2014 to 8% in 2022. 

This is Xi’s first visit to the Saudi Kingdom since 2016 and his third overseas trip since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

His three-day trip includes a series of summits with regional leaders,  demonstrating China’s growing foothold in the Middle East. He is expected to meet with leaders from Egypt, Iraq and the Palestinian Authority, according to The New York Times. 

The Chinese president hailed “a new era” in Chinese-Arab relations, and Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning referred to Xi’s visit as “an epoch-making milestone in the history of China-Arab relations.”

“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,” she said. 

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