Chinese-Saudi deal heralds a new era in ME | By Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi

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Chinese-Saudi deal heralds a new era in ME

AT a time when Washington-Riyadh relations are at a low ebb, both China and Saudi Arabia are moving towards an upward trajectory —of their relationship glaringly marked by Chinese President’s historical visit to the Kingdom— ushering in a new heraldry of their political and economic ties—thereby creating a new era of geo-politics and geo-economics in the Middle East region.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Saudi King Salman have signed a series of strategic deals, including one involving Chinese tech giant Huawei.

As China and the Gulf region are deepening their economic relations, a race over the primacy of interests between the US and China will dominate the ME future horizon.

On 8 December, Chinese President Xi Jinping and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud signed a “comprehensive strategic partnership agreement” at the Al Yamamah Palace where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hosted a lavish reception.

The same day, state media – Saudi Press Agency (SPA) – reported that China and Saudi Arabia had signed 34 investment agreements on the previous day within the framework of President Xi’s visit.

The Chinese President XI wrote in an article published in Saudi media, the trip was intended to strengthen China’s relations with the Arab world.

Xi wrote that Saudi Arabia and China “respect each other’s sovereignty and development path [and] respect each other’s history and cultural traditions”.

That said, the agreements cover “several sectors in the fields of green energy, green hydrogen, photovoltaic energy, information technology, cloud services, transportation, logistics, medical industries, housing and construction factories”.

The SPA did not elaborate on details. Besides these 34 agreements, Saudi state media stated that China and Saudi Arabia were set to sign deals valued at around US$30 billion on December 8.

A deal over Huawei Technologies will bring cloud computing, data centres and high-tech complexes in Saudi cities, as reported in Al Jazeera, which attributed it to Saudi officials.

Moreover, in order to synergize China‘s BRI initiative and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, both the sides are committed to working for more outcomes in bilateral cooperation in all areas.

China will increase communication and coordination with Saudi Arabia on energy policy, expand the scale of crude oil trade, enhance cooperation on exploration and development and deliver on the Chinese-Saudi Gulei Ethylene Complex Project and other large-scale energy cooperation projects, said Xi.

President XI also pointed out that China supports Saudi Arabia in playing a bigger role in international and regional affairs and will step up communication and coordination with Saudi Arabia at the United Nations, the Group of (G20) and other multilateral platforms.

The two sides supported each other in adhering the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs and other basic norms governing international law and international relations.

The Saudi side also threw its weight behind the one-China policy when it came to China’s recent tension with Taiwan.

On the eve of this historic moment, the Saudi Energy Minister said Riyadh would stay a “trusted and reliable” energy partner for Beijing and the two would boost cooperation in energy supply chains by setting up a regional centre in the kingdom for Chinese factories.

Notably, a memorandum with China’s Huawei Technologies [RIC:RIC:HWT.UL], on cloud computing and building high-tech complexes in Saudi cities, was agreed amid the US’ reservations over this 5G deal between the Gulf States and China.

Currently, China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner with bilateral trade worth $87.3 billion in 2021.

Chinese exports to Saudi Arabia reached $30.3 billion, while China’s imports from the kingdom totalled $57 billion. Below are a few areas where China and Saudi Arabia share close ties.

Saudi Advanced Communications and Electronics Systems Co (ACES) signed a deal with China Electronics Technology Group to manufacture unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) payload systems in the kingdom, a Saudi English-language newspaper Arab News and Saudi Gazette reported.

These UAV payload systems will provide the Saudis with greater firepower without having to risk military personnel.

Besides, China has decided to designate Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination for Chinese group visitors, so as to expand mutual visits and people-to-people exchange between the two sides.

Saudi Arabia appreciates China’s Middle East Green Initiative and will work with China to strengthen cooperation on areas such as clean energy and green development and to increase mutual visits and cultural exchanges, Saudi Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) said.

It is hoped that China will continue to help it enhance its Chinese language teaching capacity.

It also appreciates China for supporting Saudi Arabia to become a dialogue partner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and will increase communication and coordination with China on multilateral occasions such as the G20 and BRICS, he added.

However, the growing Chinese influence in the ME region, including Africa is counterpoising American hegemony in that region.

Undeniably, China’s soft power has been a pivotal force in transforming its image in the Arab world as it has emerged today as the Arab region’s largest trade partner, thereby establishing its historic mantle as an export powerhouse to every region of the world.

In this way, what actually makes China such a resilient exporter is nonetheless Beijing’s diversity of products that it manufactures.

Moreover, the GCC-China cooperation is a significant development since the GCC countries play an important role as a hub linking Asia, Africa and Europe due to their geographic location.

Notably, the GCC countries’ petroleum and natural gas reserves account for 30 percent and 20 percent of the global supply, respectively.

Foreseeably, the Chinese entry into the Gulf and Middle Eastern region is heralding a new geopolitics and geo-economics era of growing competition between Washington and Beijing.

“We are mindful of the influence that China is trying to grow around the world,” said John Kirby, a spokesperson for the US National Security Council, concerning Xi’s visit.

“The Middle East is certainly one of those regions where they want to deepen their level of influence.

” For the six decades, the region remains a hotbed of American politics and interventions. And yet, the decline of US unipolarity evidenced by the US synergy of reducing its military footprint in the Middle East in favour of the pivot to Asia; an expanded Chinese BRI; the Russian attempts to reestablish itself as a power broker in the region; all this is tantamount to signify the changing future dynamics of the region.

—The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-international law analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law. He deals with the strategic and nuclear issues.