How does China present itself in the Arab countries as an alternative to the United States?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives Xi Jinping in Riyadh on Thursday.Reuters photo

Who is sitting at the table with?

You don’t have to take sides against Russia, nobody complains about human rights or the hidden dangers of Chinese high-tech. Chinese President Xi Jinping is in the Saudi capital Riyadh until Saturday among like-minded people who want to deepen their relationship with Beijing.

The Chinese president comes alone when he outlines his comprehensive prospects for a common future to an audience of heads of state, so his Saudi hosts organized not one, but two regional summits around his visit. King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known for short as MBS, will be visiting no less than fourteen Arab leaders. For example, Saudi Arabia is asserting its position as a regional leader, while at the same time taking a front row seat to bilateral talks with Xi.

What is the importance of China for the economy of Arab countries?

For good customers like China, which gets half of its oil imported from Saudi Arabia, the red carpet is rolling out. A quarter of Saudi oil exports go to China and Riyadh wants to increase that. For a moment, Russia seemed to rival Saudi Arabia by selling its oil, but Xi will reassure his main oil supplier: The Chinese economy is slowly emerging from recession, after growing just 2.2 percent during the first half of the year. As the Chinese economy is freed from restrictive policies, the demand for oil will grow rapidly.

Oil has always been the main binding factor between the communists in Beijing and the sheikhs and kings in the Gulf, but in recent years there has been a growing need on both sides to broaden and deepen the economic relationship. To make the economy less dependent on oil, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is developing activity in other sectors, such as manufacturing. No country has more experience with this than China, Saudi Arabia’s largest investor. As a result, dirty business deals worth 28 billion euros are signed.

Chinese construction companies and technology champions are watching fondly the mega-project NEOM, a €476 billion city under construction, which will be equipped with the latest advanced technologies, such as artificially intelligent security systems with facial recognition. The Middle East is an important link in the chain of trade routes, ports and industrial zones that Beijing is proposing around the world through the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). The entire region has fallen into the grip of the Belt and Road Initiative — even Syria, which Western countries have blocked due to sanctions, is allowed to join. To the concern of Americans, Saudi Arabia is aligning its economic growth strategy with the Belt and Road Initiative.

What are China’s geopolitical interests in the Middle East?

The Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, have long been partners of the United States in buying oil and selling arms. However, things have been less smooth between Washington and Riyadh for various reasons. Saudi Arabia is disappointed by the lack of US support in the conflict with Yemen, and also offended by the US’s sharp rebuke for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

On top of that, there is the extreme annoyance on both sides about oil prices. The United States wants lower oil prices and thus increased Saudi oil production in order to frustrate Russia, which is offering its oil cheaply. On the other hand, the oil-producing countries in the Gulf recently agreed with Russia to put less oil on the market in order to stabilize the price per barrel.

US influence in the Middle East is waning, and Saudi Arabia fears Washington is distancing itself from the region. US President Joe Biden is paying more attention to countries that are central to his priorities for containing China. However, the Gulf states do not want to take sides and turn against their main trading partner and investor. With both the United States and Saudi Arabia adjusting their relationship to these new circumstances, Xi is approaching a vacuum. And not just for trading.

What else does Xi offer?

The Saudi crown prince no longer puts all his eggs in the American basket, and even gives some of them to Xi. The Chinese arms industry cannot compete with the United States, but that does not mean that Beijing has nothing to offer. For example, Saudi Arabia develops missiles with the help of Chinese technology and the country buys Chinese military drones.

Xi has a good nose for tensions between the United States and its Arab partners. It presents itself as the plausible alternative to the American superpower: buying oil, investing, and supplying arms, but without criticizing human rights. On the contrary, Xi praised Saudi Arabia as a “major force for maintaining international justice.”

Therefore, China has accepted Saudi Arabia, along with four smaller Gulf states, as dialogue partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The Chinese-dominated Security Council includes a growing number of non-Western countries that together focus on combating terrorism, along with stimulating economic growth.

The SCO’s generous access to China’s normally inaccessible leadership is attractive. Moreover, states that usually do not get along with each other realize themselves in the ideology of the SCO. That is, the era of the West, which set the law for tyrannical rulers, is over. Most Gulf countries agree with this Chinese conviction.

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