Chinese President Xi Jinping met Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince on Thursday on an Arab outreach visit that will yield billions of dollars in deals and has earned a rebuke from Washington.
About $30 billion in agreements will be signed on Thursday, Saudi state media said, as China seeks to shore up its Covid-hit economy and as the Saudis, long-term US allies, push to diversify their economic and political alliances.
Xi, who flew in on Wednesday, was greeted with a handshake by 37-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, de facto ruler of the world’s biggest oil exporter, at Yamamah Palace.
The two men stood side-by-side as a brass band played their national anthems, then chatted as they walked into the palace, which is the king’s official residence and seat of the royal court.
Arab leaders also began to converge on the Saudi capital ahead of a summit with Xi, the leader of the world’s number-two economy, who will hold separate talks with the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council before leaving on Friday.
China, the top consumer of Saudi oil, has been strengthening its ties with a region that has long relied on the United States for military protection but which has voiced concerns the American presence could be downgraded.
After Xi’s arrival on Wednesday, with formation jets flying overhead, Saudi state media announced 34 investment agreements in sectors including green hydrogen, information technology, transport and construction.
The official Saudi Press Agency did not provide details but said two-way trade totalled 304 billion Saudi riyals ($80 billion) in 2021 and 103 billion Saudi riyals ($27 billion) in the third quarter of 2022.
State broadcaster Al Ekhbariya said another 20 agreements worth 110 billion riyals ($29.3 billion) were due to be signed on Thursday.
Riyadh-based diplomats said Thursday was expected to be devoted to meetings including with King Salman, the 86-year-old monarch, and his son, Prince Mohammed.
– ‘Raising pace’ of cooperation –
The crown prince sees China as a critical partner in his sweeping Vision 2030 agenda, seeking the involvement of Chinese firms in ambitious mega-projects meant to diversify the economy away from fossil fuels.
Key Saudi projects include the futuristic $500 billion megacity NEOM, a so-called cognitive city that will depend heavily on facial recognition and surveillance technology.
Saudi investment minister Khalid al-Falih said this week’s visit “will contribute to raising the pace of economic and investment cooperation between the two countries”, offering Chinese companies and investors “rewarding returns”, according to SPA.
Xi may also hold bilateral talks before the summit meetings with other Arab leaders who have arrived in Saudi Arabia ahead of Friday’s summits, Riyadh-based diplomats said.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Tunisian President Kais Saied, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Sudan’s de facto leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan were all flying in on Thursday.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, Moroccan Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch and Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati have also confirmed their attendance.
China’s foreign ministry this week described Xi’s trip as the “largest-scale diplomatic activity between China and the Arab world” since the People’s Republic of China was founded.
It has not escaped the attention of the White House, which warned of “the influence that China is trying to grow around the world”, calling its objectives “not conducive to preserving the international rules based order”.
Washington has long been a close partner of Riyadh, but the relationship is currently roiled by disagreements on energy policy, US security guarantees and human rights.
Xi is making just his third journey overseas since the Covid pandemic prompted China to shut its borders and embark on a series of lockdowns, putting the brakes on its giant economy.
His visit follows US President Joe Biden’s trip in July, when he greeted Prince Mohammed with a fist-bump at the start of a vain attempt to convince the Saudis to raise oil production.