By Leonardo Bruni
Earlier this month, the internet was rife with speculation that Xi Jinping would soon break his more than two-year-long hiatus from overseas travel to visit Saudi Arabia. Although the visit did not take place, the media buzz surrounding Xi’s improbable trip offers the opportunity to reflect on how China’s role in the Middle East is perceived both in the region and abroad.
The report most likely originated in the Middle East, in particular Saudi Arabia itself, as the story was initially broken by The Guardian’s Middle East correspondent (rather than their China correspondent) and was corroborated by The Jerusalem Post through an alleged Saudi source. That Beijing was probably not involved in spreading the rumor can be surmised from a well-connected Chinese official dispelling it as “gossip”. Additionally, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin, in response to a planted question on China-Saudi relations during a press conference on 15 August, did not mention any upcoming state visit, instead only stating that “China and Saudi Arabia are comprehensive strategic partners … [whose] relations have grown robustly with fruitful cooperation in various areas”. This routine and reserved response were likely, in retrospect, a veiled dismissal of the hearsay.
An interpretation of why actors within Saudi Arabia could be behind the story of Xi’s trip is that it could assist with the Kingdom’s foreign policy strategy of balancing the US and China. The report could signal to Washington that Riyadh is not to be neglected as it now has Beijing as an alternative partner. Indeed, The Guardian and The Jerusalem Post articles and an analysis by POLITICO all emphasized US-China great power competition, comparing Xi’s hypothetical grand tour of Saudi Arabia with US President Joe Biden’s low-key visit earlier this July.
While Biden’s request for a more muted welcome could have irritated Riyadh, according to analysts at Carnegie, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman emerged as the trip’s “big winner” as the POTUS had to set aside his promise to make the Saudi government a “pariah” and Washington resumed arms sales to Riyadh.
This, alongside the fact that for Chinese observers Biden’s trip was underwhelming and of little concern, makes it a bit superficial to only consider the U.S.-China great power competition. Global dynamics are relevant within the Middle East insofar as they have an impact on regional conditions. As reported in the latest edition of the ChinaMed Observer, local analysts and actors usually interpret events like Biden’s Middle East tour more through the lens of regional issues, such as the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, rather than international ones.
From this perspective, tensions with Iran could be a further reason behind Xi’s fictitious Saudi trip as it may have been a reminder from Riyadh to both Beijing and Tehran of the importance of China-Saudi ties in the context of the then ongoing Iran-Saudi talks and the normalization of relations between Tehran and many Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. While Saudi Arabia and China have a strategic partnership with Beijing being Riyadh’s biggest trading partner and crude oil customer, the Saudi government is concerned with the improving ties between China and Iran underscored by the signing of their 25-Year Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement in March 2021. Initially, the Agreement did not result in any real increase in cooperation, but in recent months it appears to be finally bearing some fruit as there has been a reported significant increase in trade between China and Iran, in particular regarding oil. Additionally, the Iranian nuclear deal impasse may finally be surmounted which could boost the China-Iran relationship as the sanction regime is holding back cooperation in many fields (although uncertainties will remain until at least the next U.S. presidential elections).
While Saudi Arabia and other regional actors deem any cooperation between Beijing and Tehran dangerous, some experts remain skeptical of the relevance of the recent increase in bilateral trade. Even within Iran itself, many more reformist-minded commentators have their doubts about the future of Iran-China cooperation and see Beijing as a risk to their country’s economic sovereignty.
On the other hand, opinions on Saudi-China ties are optimistic both from the Saudi and Chinese points of view. These positions are backed by encouraging economic and trade data and the recently signed Memorandum of Understanding between Sinopec and Aramco. Indeed, it is very unlikely that Iran will overtake Saudi Arabia as Beijing’s premier regional economic and trade partner, despite U.S. pressure on its Middle Eastern allies to cut ties with China.
To conclude, the story of Xi’s Saudi trip showcases how there are significant differences in how analysts from within and from outside the region perceive news and events. It also may indicate how China’s balanced approach towards regional rivalries may become harder to maintain as it acquires a more proactive role internationally and as local actors exploit global dynamics for their own national interest while avoiding taking sides.
Leonardo Bruni is a research fellow at the ChinaMed Project.