Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit Saudi Arabia this week, with his gala reception already being compared to what the Saudis rolled out in 2017 for then-U.S. President Donald Trump. 

The Guardian reports that “plans were under way to hoist thousands of Chinese banners and receive hundreds of dignitaries” in the cities of Riyadh, Jeddah and Neom. By comparison, Saudi Arabia provided a minimal welcome to U.S. President Joe Biden on his recent visit in July, reflecting the strained relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia. 

The Biden administration’s gradual retreat from the Middle East has created a vacuum that has enabled China to expand its influence, but China has been strengthening its position with Saudi Arabia for years and is now the Saudis’ largest trade partner and oil buyer.

Saudi Arabia has been seriously considering selling its oil in Chinese yuan, which would be a significant change and a challenge to the status of the U.S. dollar: 80% of oil transactions today are done in U.S. dollars.   

“China is very important in the region geopolitically. It has been eyeing military bases in Africa and elsewhere. In the past, its interests had been purely mercantilist, focused entirely on commerce. Now, they’re increasingly looking at things through a strategic lens,” said Mohammed Alyahya, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative Research Fellowship Program and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “They are particularly interested in ensuring the free flow of oil. This is the same for China as [for] the U.S.” 

“The Americans say there is a diversion of bandwidth away from the region to focus on countering China, in a ‘pivot to Asia.’ The Chinese, however, seem to consider the region to be a primary theater for [a] great power competition,” Alyahya stated. “China is America’s primary competitor in the region. They’ll clearly be watching very carefully.”

Saudi Arabia is an important link in the China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global development project launched by Xi in 2013. The BRI aims to build an economic and infrastructure network connecting Asia with Europe, Africa and beyond. Practically, the project has strengthened China’s global influence dramatically by making countries worldwide dependent on China. 

Under the BRI, China has signed cooperation agreements on construction projects with 19 Arab countries.

China’s trade relationship with Saudi Arabia extends to weaponry, which China has been selling to Saudi Arabia for years. China reportedly also helped Saudi Arabia start the production of its own ballistic missiles. 

The two countries committed to military cooperation under Chinese Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe and Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman, and agreed to boost that cooperation in a virtual meeting in January. 

While Xi can expect a royal reception in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi-U.S. relationship will need more than a visit from Biden to improve significantly, not least because the Saudis are looking for the kind of long-term stability that U.S. politics today cannot provide.

“The relationship is very strained,” The Wall Street Journal’s Middle East correspondent Stephen Kalin said in March. “It’s hard to really say exactly how bad it is. It might be the worst it’s been in 20 years.”

“What we hear from the Saudis is they feel like American politics is so unpredictable and so polarized that they can’t really be sure whether the next administration is going to be friendly to them or hostile to them,” Kalin stated. “Whereas, with a place like China that has a leader who’s been there for years, there’s a bit more predictability, and that sort of matches the Saudi model of government, which obviously doesn’t have elections and has a long sustained leadership.”

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