Chinese President Xi Jinping and Saudi King Salman have signed a series of strategic deals, including one involving Chinese tech giant Huawei, as part of a visit expected to bolster political and economic ties.
Xi’s three-day visit to the kingdom includes Arab and Gulf summits and is being closely watched by the United States as Washington’s relations with Riyadh are at a low point.
On Thursday, Xi and King Salman signed a “comprehensive strategic partnership agreement” after he was escorted to Yamamah Palace by the Saudi Royal Guard, who were on horseback and carried Chinese and Saudi flags.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the de facto ruler of the world’s biggest oil exporter, greeted Xi at the palace, which is the king’s official residence and seat of the royal court. The Chinese leader heralded “a new era” in ties.
China is the world’s largest importer of crude oil, for which it is heavily reliant on Saudi Arabia. The agreements that both sides were to sign were valued at around $30bn, according to Saudi state media.
The deal over Huawei Technologies is related to cloud computing, data centres and building high-tech complexes in Saudi cities, according to Saudi officials.
US security officials have warned that equipment from Chinese brands such as Huawei could be used to interfere with fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks and collect sensitive information.
Yet Huawei has taken part in building 5G networks in most Gulf states despite the US concerns.
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 ($80bn) in 2021 and 103 billion Saudi riyals ($27bn) in the third quarter of 2022.
State broadcaster Al Ekhbariya said another 20 agreements worth 110 billion riyals ($29.3bn) were due to be signed on Thursday.
Xi and King Salman agreed to hold meetings between the two countries’ leaders every two years, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
Arab leaders also began to converge on the Saudi capital ahead of a summit with Xi, who will hold separate talks with the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) before leaving on Friday.
Leaders convening in Riyadh include Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Tunisian President Kais Saied, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Sudan’s de facto leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, Moroccan Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch and Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati also confirmed their attendance.
Growing Chinese influence
China’s foreign ministry this week described Xi’s trip – just his third overseas journey since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – as the “largest-scale diplomatic activity between China and the Arab world” since the People’s Republic of China was founded.
China is seeking to shore up its pandemic-hit economy and strengthen its ties with a region that has long relied on the US for military protection.
The Saudis are pushing to diversify their economic and political alliances at a time when relations with their long-term US allies appear roiled by disagreements on energy policy, US security guarantees and human rights.
Xi’s visit follows US President Joe Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia in July, when he greeted MBS with a fist bump at the start of a failed attempt to convince the Saudis to raise oil production.
The Saudi crown prince sees China as a critical partner in his sweeping Vision 2030 agenda and is seeking the involvement of Chinese firms in ambitious megaprojects meant to diversify the economy away from fossil fuels.
Key projects include the futuristic $500bn megacity Neom.
Saudi Minister of Investment Khalid Al-Falih told Saudi state media that 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”.