The Chinese president Xi Jinping is expected to visit Saudi Arabia next week, where plans are under way for a gala reception to match that given to Donald Trump on his first trip abroad as president.
The welcome being prepared for the Chinese leader is in stark contrast with that afforded to Joe Biden in June, when the US president received a low-key reception, reflecting strained ties between the two countries and personal distaste between Biden and the de facto Saudi leader, Mohammed bin Salman.
Xi, however, is instead expected to receive a bells-and-whistles welcome intended to consolidate ties between Beijing and Riyadh and reinforce the image of China as an ally of Saudi Arabia, as ties with Washington continue to drift.
China and Saudi Arabia have been growing closer over two decades, but ties have deepened as Prince Mohammed accumulated power in the kingdom from 2016 onwards. Riyadh has defended China’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority and Hong Kong’s draconian national security law, placing it at odds with the US on key human rights issues.
Trade ties between the two countries have forged ahead at the same time as Washington has pivoted away from the Middle East.
“China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trade partner. It is the largest buyer of Saudi oil,” said Mohammed Alyahya, a fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center’s Middle East Institute and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “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.
“They are particularly interested in ensuring the free flow of oil. This is the same for China as the US. 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 theatre for great power competition.
“China is America’s primary competitor in the region. They’ll clearly be watching very carefully.”
Xi was first invited to Riyadh in March. His visit is likely to be the most significant to the kingdom since Trump’s arrival in May 2017, months after his inauguration, where he was received with silver swords, a glowing orb, extravagant gifts and a rollout of Saudi and Arab royalty.
That visit set the tone for the Trump administration’s disposition towards Riyadh, an era when the ambitious crown prince was given repeated cover by Trump and his senior officials and formed deep ties with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
China made no public comment about Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen, its boycott of Qatar, or the murder of dissident, Jamal Khashoggi, which led to strong condemnation in the US and Europe.
China is increasingly seen as stepping into a regional vacuum created by waning US interest and power projection. Biden’s June visit yielded few dividends, and did not succeed in convincing Prince Mohammed to boost oil supplies – a move that would have helped reduce bowser prices in the US in the run-up to mid-term elections.
In preparation for the visit, which is expected to take in Riyadh, Jeddah and the planned megacity of Neom on the western Saudi coast, plans were under way to hoist thousands of Chinese banners and receive hundreds of dignitaries.
Prince Mohammed has appeared emboldened by Biden’s visit, telling allies that it succeeded in reasserting Riyadh’s influence on a global stage, and displaying a sovereign footing. Critics of the visit have claimed that the US helped rehabilitate Prince Mohammed nearly four years after the Khashoggi killing – which was carried out by Prince Mohammed’s security aides – while receiving little in return.
“Saudi has its swagger back,” said one senior Saudi official. “We engage with our friends on equal terms. Friends don’t just arrive here, demand things and give nothing back.”
Prince Mohammed recently travelled to Greece and France, ending years of isolation. “That visit was made possible by the Biden visit,” said the Saudi official.