Saudi Arabia is lavishly hosting China's Xi Jinping, cozying up to a key US rival in a move likely to infuriate the White House

Xi in Saudi
Chinese President Xi Jinping is greeted upon his arrival by senior Saudi Arabian officials at the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 7, 2022.Huang Jingwen/Xinhua via Getty Images
  • Saudi Arabia is hosting China's President Xi Jinping at a lavish summit this week.

  • The countries are expected to announce lucrative energy and investment deals.

  • This comes in the wake of a series of diplomatic spats between Saudi Arabia and the US.

Saudi Arabia's de-facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping this week, in the wake of months of diplomatic tensions with the US.

Saudi Arabia rolled out a lavish welcome for Xi, with jets trailing colored smoke accompanying his plane as it landed in Riyadh on Wednesday, a purple carpet laid out as he disembarked, and cannons firing as he was greeted by Saudi dignitaries, reports said.

This was in stark contrast to the muted welcome given to President Joe Biden when he visited in July, when he was greeted by Crown Prince Mohammed and a fist bump.

For decades the US has been Saudi Arabia's key international ally, but the White House has said it is concerned by Riyadh's bid to form closer relations with China, Washington's main rival.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the meeting this week will be closely scrutinized for signs of the Crown Prince's increasingly maverick foreign policy plans.

Saudi Arabia and China are expected to expand and deepen their ties at the summit, with Saudi Arabian state media reporting that deals totalling $30 billion are expected to be announced.

During the visit, Xi will also hold a face-to-face meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed and his father, King Salman, as well as other Gulf state and Arab leaders.

"President Xi's visit to Saudi Arabia and the bilateral and multilateral talks taking place in the Kingdom this week speak volumes about the extent to which Beijing and Riyadh place a tremendous amount of value on their partnership," Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, told Insider.

Cafiero said that the Chinese see Saudi Arabia as a key partner in their "Belt and Road" initiative, a global infrastructure investment strategy that extends into the Middle East.

Riyadh, meanwhile, sees Chinese investment as key to its "Vision 2030" plan to diversify its economy away from fossil fuels, he said.

"The Belt and Road Initiative and Vision 2030 are set to complement each other, greatly contributing to the growing synergies between China and the Kingdom," Cafiero explained.

Worsening China-US relations 

The China-Saudi summit is being held against a backdrop of worsening relations between Saudi Arabia and the US, which for decades has been Riyadh's key strategic partner.

During Biden's trip in July, the president appealed for Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to combat rising fuel prices, caused by the West's economic embargo of Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Instead, the Saudis cut production, in tandem with Russia, sparking fury from Democrats, who accused the kingdom of seeking to damage Biden's political standing in the lead up to the midterm elections by spiking inflation.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia announced that it would be keeping the production cuts in place, but the country has also made diplomatic moves seemingly designed to placate the US.

The Saudi Arabia-China summit also comes amid instability in global oil markets. Saudi Arabia is China's main oil supplier, and this is an issue likely to feature prominently at the summit.

Analysts say the country is keenly aware of declining US global influence, and its weakening commitment to the Middle East, and is thus seeking to broker stronger ties with rival superpowers.

But Saudi Arabia still sees the US as one of its key allies, and remains heavily dependent on US security assistance and military power, as well as US support in its struggle with regional foe Iran.

Though Crown Prince Mohammed is seeking to steer a foreign policy less dependent on Washington, DC, it's unlikely either nation will want to significantly loosen ties any time soon, analysts say.

"The relationships with China pale versus those with the United States in terms of both complexity and intimacy," Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Reuters.

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