Shafaq News/ Saudi Arabia has invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Riyadh as the kingdom looks to deepen ties with Beijing amid strained relations with Washington, people familiar with the plan said.
The trip is expected to happen after Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, which begins in early April this year, the people said, in what could be Xi’s first foreign travel since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Riyadh is planning to replicate the warm reception it gave to former President Donald Trump in 2017 when he visited the kingdom on his first trip abroad, one of the people said.
“The crown prince and Xi are close friends and both understand that there is huge potential for stronger ties,” said a Saudi official. “It is not just ‘They buy oil from us and we buy weapons from them’.”
The Saudi Foreign Ministry and the Chinese Embassy in Riyadh didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
The trip comes amid shifting geopolitics in the Middle East, as the U.S. looks to focus more attention and resources on Asia while China and Russia expand their influence in the region. Amid doubts about Washington’s staying power, especially after the rushed U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, many of its regional partners are seeking out new security and economic ties.
The war in Ukraine has further highlighted the changes under way to traditional alliances in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has rebuffed U.S. requests to pump more oil to help tame surging crude prices and the United Arab Emirates ignored U.S. lobbying and abstained from a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Russian invasion.
Saudi Arabia forged deep ties with Trump, who sided with the kingdom in a regional dispute with Qatar, pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Riyadh had opposed and stood by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in 2018. But Trump’s decision not to respond to an Iranian drone and missile attack on major Saudi oil sites in 2019 rattled Gulf partners who have relied for decades on the promise of U.S. security protection. Iran denied involvement in the oil facility attacks.
China is the world’s top oil importer and the biggest trading partner for Saudi Arabia, which is the largest oil exporter globally. Beijing also maintains warm relations with Saudi Arabia’s arch rival Iran, which Riyadh could seek to leverage if Tehran agrees a revived nuclear deal with the U.S. and other world powers.
Xi’s visit would stand in contrast to Prince Mohammed’s relationship with President Biden, who has shunned the de facto Saudi leader after vowing during the 2020 campaign to treat the kingdom as a “pariah” state. The prince declined to speak with Biden in recent weeks as the U.S. was working to build international support for Ukraine and contain a surge in oil prices, The Wall Street Journal reported last week.
Xi last met Prince Mohammed in 2019 when he visited Beijing to sign energy and trade agreements amid the initial wave of Western criticism over the killing of Khashoggi, who had relocated to the U.S. and criticized the crown prince.
It will be Xi’s first trip to Saudi Arabia since 2016 and could be his first foreign travel since the pandemic began. As many other heads of state have stepped out of their protective bubbles and begun hitting the road, China’s president has limited his interaction with foreign counterparts to videolink and telephone.