Tuesday February 07, 2023

Xi meets Saudi king, MBS in high-stakes visit

Chinese President Xi and Saudi crown prince met on an Arab outreach visit that has earned a rebuke from Washington, reaching deals in areas including energy and infrastructure

December 09, 2022
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Saudi Arabias crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman. AFP
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman. AFP

RIYADH: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince met Thursday on an Arab outreach visit that has earned a rebuke from Washington, reaching deals in areas including energy and infrastructure. Xi also met with Prince Mohammed’s father, 86-year-old King Salman, state media reported. 

Agreements worth about $30 billion were being signed on Thursday, Saudi state media said, as China seeks to shore up its Covid-hit economy and as the Saudis, long-term US allies, push to diversify their economic and political alliances.

Xi and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the 37-year-old ruler of the world’s biggest oil exporter, met at Yamamah Palace in Riyadh, flanked by high-ranking officials wearing face masks, footage aired on state television showed.

They oversaw the signing of energy agreements on hydrogen as well as a plan to “harmonise” Saudi Arabia’s ambitious economic reform agenda, Vision 2030, with China´s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, the official Saudi Press Agency said.

The signed deals also covered a petrochemicals project, housing development and the teaching of Chinese language, SPA said, though it did not detail their substance or monetary value.

Earlier, state television showed Xi being greeted with a handshake by Prince Mohammed before the two men stood side-by-side as a brass band played the two countries’ national anthems. They then chatted while walking into the palace, which is the king’s official residence and seat of the royal court.

Xi also met with Prince Mohammed’s father, 86-year-old King Salman, state media reported.

Upon his arrival on Wednesday, Xi said bilateral ties with Saudi Arabia had grown “by leaps and bounds” since the two countries established a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2016. This “has not only enriched both countries’ peoples but promoted regional peace, security, prosperity and development,” Xi said, according to Chinese state media.

The crown prince sees China as a critical partner in his sweeping Vision 2030 agenda, seeking the involvement of Chinese firms in ambitious mega-projects meant to diversify the economy away from fossil fuels.

Saudi investment minister Khalid al-Falih said 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”, according to SPA.

Earlier on Thursday, Saudi state media announced 34 investment agreements in sectors including green hydrogen, information technology, transport and construction.

State broadcaster Al-Ekhbariya said another 20 agreements worth 110 billion riyals were due to be signed.

Arab leaders began Thursday to converge on the Saudi capital ahead of summit meetings with Xi, the leader of the world’s number-two economy, who will hold separate talks with the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council before leaving on Friday.

China, the top consumer of Saudi oil, has been strengthening ties with a region that has long relied on the United States for military protection but which has voiced concerns the American presence could be downgraded.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Sudan’s de facto leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan had all arrived by Thursday afternoon, according to the Saudi foreign ministry.

Tunisian President Kais Saied, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, Moroccan Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch and Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati have also confirmed their attendance.

China’s foreign ministry this week described Xi’s trip as the “largest-scale diplomatic activity between China and the Arab world” since the People’s Republic of China was founded. It has not escaped the attention of the White House, which warned of “the influence that China is trying to grow around the world”, calling its objectives “not conducive to preserving the international rules based order”.

Washington has long been a close partner of Riyadh, but the relationship is currently roiled by disagreements on energy policy, US security guarantees and human rights.

Xi is making just his third journey overseas since the Covid pandemic prompted China to shut its borders and embark on a series of lockdowns, putting the brakes on its giant economy.

His visit follows US President Joe Biden’s trip in July, when he greeted Prince Mohammed with a fist-bump at the start of a vain attempt to convince the Saudis to raise oil production.