Chinese President Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia comes with significant diplomatic overtures to Arab world 

President Xi Jinping’s visit to the region as been termed as “the largest and highest level diplomatic event between China and the Arab world.” China is already the largest trading partner of the GCC as a whole

December 09, 2022 by Abdul Rahman
China-Arab summit
Chinese President Xi Jinping with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia at Riyadh's al-Yamamah Palace in Saudi Arabia, December 8, 2022. (Photo: Xinhua/Huang Jingwen)

Chinese President Xi Jinping participated in the first China-Arab summit and the China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit on Friday, December 9, during the second day of his state visit to Saudi Arabia. The twin summits are expected to have a significant impact on regional and global geopolitical alignments. 

Apart from signing various agreements in areas related to economic, political, and scientific cooperation with Saudi Arabia on Thursday, Xi said that his visit to the region was with the objective of creating a strategic partnership with the GCC and much deeper cooperation with the Arab countries in general. 

Leaders from various Arab countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, and Palestine, along with the rulers of the Gulf countries, participated in this first China-Arab summit.  

On Thursday, Xi met Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) and both countries reportedly signed deals worth around USD 30 billion under the comprehensive strategic partnership agreement they had signed in 2016. This deal includes cooperation in areas such as green energy initiatives, technology, transport, and construction, and is considered crucial for the Saudi attempt to diversify its economy under its Vision 2030 plan.

Saudi-Chinese bilateral trade crossed the USD 80 billion mark in 2021, with the Saudis exporting mostly energy resources to China – the world’s largest buyer of oil and gas – and China exporting machines and other finished products to Saudi Arabia. 

Significantly, the deals between Saudi Arabia and China also include Huawei, which has been targeted with sanctions since 2020 by the US, a close ally of the Saudis.    

Leaders from both the countries also agreed to hold a summit meeting every two years. 

During his bilateral meetings with various leaders of the Arab world on Thursday, Xi mentioned China’s support for their right to sovereignty and promised economic and political aid in their development initiatives. 

During his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Xi emphasized that China supports the Palestinian people in their struggle to “restore the legitimate rights and interest of their nation.” Xi reiterated China’s support for a “two-state solution” and promised to work for “an early, just and durable solution to the Palestinian issue.” 

A significant diplomatic move in the region

Termed as “the largest and highest level diplomatic event between China and the Arab world since the founding of the People’s Republic” in 1949, the summit is expected to lay the foundations for greater economic, political, and cultural cooperation between China and the Arab countries. 

Xi’s visit to the region is significant, being only his third overseas trip since the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020. Prior to this, Xi had attended the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, last month, and visited Central Asia to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in September. 

China is already the largest trading partner of the GCC as a whole, with a volume of mutual trade that exceeded USD 230 billion in 2021. China also seems to be considering a free-trade agreement with the GCC.  

In a signed article in the Saudi newspaper Al Riyadh, Xi wrote on Thursday that “the Arab world is an important member of the developing world,” and highlighted the Arab values of independence and opposition to external interference and imperialism. 

Noting that China already has agreements pertaining to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with 20 Arab countries, and 15 Arab countries are already members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Xi emphasized that the basic principle of China-Arab relations is “non-interference in international affairs, safeguarding sovereignty and territorial integrity and jointly upholding international fairness and justice.” 

Xi underlined that China will work with the Arab countries on both Global Development and Global Security Initiatives to “stabilize volatile regions and to contribute more positive energy to peace and development.” 

“We will continue to jointly advocate peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom—the common values of humanity, strive to replace estrangement and clash of civilizations with exchanges and mutual learning, promote understanding and affinity between our peoples and build ‘a garden of civilizations’ featuring mutual appreciation and inspiration,” Xi said.