RIYADH: Saudi Arabia and China showcased deepening ties with a series of strategic deals on Thursday during a visit by President Xi Jinping, including one with tech giant Huawei, whose growing foray into the Gulf region has raised US security concerns.
Xi’s car was escorted to the king’s palace by members of the Saudi Royal Guard riding Arabian horses and carrying Chinese and Saudi flags, and he later attended a welcome banquet.
The Chinese leader held talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, de facto ruler of the oil giant, who greeted him with a warm smile. Xi heralded “a new era” in Arab ties.
The display stood in stark contrast to the low-key welcome extended in July to US President Joe Biden, with whom ties have been strained by Saudi energy policy and the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi that had overshadowed the awkward visit.
The United States, warily watching China’s growing sway and with its ties to Riyadh at a nadir, said on Wednesday Xi’s trip was an example of Chinese attempts to exert influence around the world and would not change US policy towards the Middle East.
A memorandum with China’s Huawei Technologies, on cloud computing and building high-tech complexes in Saudi cities, was agreed despite US unease with Gulf allies over a possible security risk in using the Chinese firm’s technology. Huawei has participated in building 5G networks in most Gulf States despite US concerns.
Prince Mohammed, with whom Biden bumped fists instead of shaking hands in July, has made a comeback on the world stage following the Khashoggi killing and has been defiant in the face of US ire over oil supplies and pressure from Washington to help isolate Russia.
In further burnishing of his international credentials, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates said on Thursday that the prince and the UAE president jointly led mediation efforts that secured the release of US basketball star Brittney Griner in a prisoner swap with Russia.
In an op-ed published in Saudi media, Xi said he was on a “pioneering trip” to “open a new era of China’s relations with the Arab world, the Arab countries of the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia”.
China and Arab countries would “continue to hold high the banner of non-interference in internal affairs”, Xi added.
Xi, due to meet other Gulf oil producers and attend a wider gathering of Arab leaders on Friday, said China would work to make those summits “milestone events in the history of China-Arab relations”, and that Beijing sees Riyadh as “an important force in the multipolar world”.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates have said that they would not choose sides between global powers and were diversifying partners to serve national economic and security interests.
China, the world’s biggest energy consumer, is a major trade partner of Gulf states and bilateral ties have expanded as the region pushes economic diversification, raising US hackles about Chinese involvement in sensitive Gulf infrastructure. (Int’l Monitoring Desk)