Published: 00:29, June 11, 2024
PDF View
Stronger China-Saudi Arabia ties benefit the entire Middle East
By Lei Wun-kong and Kacee Ting Wong

Efforts to strengthen economic ties between China and major Arab countries have increased since a groundbreaking visit to the Middle East and North Africa by President Xi Jinping in 2016. To launch China’s charm offensive, Xi made another fruitful visit to the region in December 2022. The perceived gains from the closer economic ties between China and major Arab countries in the Gulf have spread in all directions. From the perspective of China, one of the gains is the security dividends derived from better political relations with these countries. For instance, Saudi Arabia said it would not support violent acts of Uygur terrorists.

China has also relied on major Arab countries to provide connectivity in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In addition to being a promotional platform for China’s Global Development Initiative, the BRI is designed to meet China’s strategic objectives both at home and abroad. The initiative has brought a lot of benefits to the participants, including many Arab countries.

From the perspective of the Global South, the BRI has done more good than harm. The allegation of “debt-trap diplomacy” is groundless. Uncomfortable as it might be to some Western powers, the BRI has played an important role in reshaping the balance of global economic power in favor of the Global South. In particular, the standing and influence of major Arab countries are on the rise. Against such a background, China and major Arab countries have a common desire to further strengthen their economic ties under the BRI.

Of the 22 Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Saudi Arabia is the most influential. Saudi Arabia and China are driven together by the mutual need for friendly cooperation in both economic and geopolitical areas. Although Russia has replaced the kingdom as China’s top oil supplier, China is still the biggest customer of Aramco, the Saudi state-owned petroleum and natural gas company. The billions of dollars from Aramco’s revenues flow into the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, which then spends lavishly on the kingdom’s new economy, including its investment in a green transition. The kingdom has shown great interest in embracing Chinese green technology. One of the shining examples is Chinese electric vehicles. In August 2023, Saudi Arabia was invited to join the BRICS pact, the intergovernmental organization founded in 2009 by Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Close trade and investment links are at the heart of the bilateral relations between China and Saudi Arabia. At present, the kingdom is China’s largest trading partner in the Gulf. In the first half of 2022, Saudi Arabia received $5.5 billion in investment and contracts through the BRI, more than any other country (Duncan Bartlett, China and Saudi Arabia: A Partnership Under Pressure, in The Diplomat). In 2013, 140 Chinese companies were involved in contracts worth $18 billion in Saudi Arabia’s construction, telecommunications, infrastructure and petrochemical sectors (James Dorsey, Chinese Investment in the Arab Maelstrom, in A. Arduino & Xue Gong (eds.), Securing the Belt and Road Initiative).

Riding on the back of closer political and economic ties between China and Saudi Arabia, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is eager to explore economic opportunities in the kingdom. Following Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu’s high-profile visit to the region in February 2023, some Hong Kong enterprises have kept a watchful eye on business opportunities offered by the Vision 2030 agenda of the kingdom. For example, viAct, which focuses on proprietary artificial intelligence, regards Saudi Arabia as a prime market. Financially, Hong Kong has launched a new exchange-traded fund to enable local investors to tap into Saudi Arabia’s economy.

Gone are the days when China showed a strong disinclination to get involved in deep-rooted political disputes in the Middle East. The reopening of Iran’s embassy in Saudi Arabia, following the successful execution of a Chinese-brokered peace deal, signals the willingness of Beijing to act in good faith to broker peace in the region. The Israel-Hamas conflict has created new obstacles for United States efforts to help normalize political relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Luck seems to be on the Chinese side. Besides calling for a cease-fire to the Gaza military conflict, China has also endorsed a road map for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though we cannot expect too much too early from China’s preliminary peace initiative, the proposals have left a positive impact on political relations between Beijing and Riyadh. China has gained the trust of Saudi Arabia and the entire Arab world because of the goodwill shown by Beijing.

At a business conference last year, Khalid Al-Falih, the Saudi minister of investment, called for enhanced people-to-people exchanges between China and Saudi Arabia. The Ministry of Education of the kingdom has instructed all public and private secondary schools to teach Mandarin for at least two lessons per week. Militarily, the navies of the two countries took part in the Blue Sword joint drills in October 2023. As mentioned earlier, Saudi Arabia plays a role in supporting China to fight against terrorism and extremism in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

However, the Gaza crisis has created uncertainties for the Middle East in terms of the geopolitical dynamic. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has flown to Saudi Arabia six times since October 2023, seeking Saudi Arabia’s help in ending the Israeli-Hamas conflict. According to reports, the US and Saudi Arabia are nearing a pact that would offer the kingdom security guarantees and lay out a possible pathway to diplomatic ties with Israel if its government brings the war in Gaza to an end. If these reports are true, the forthcoming agreement between Washington and Riyadh will strengthen the US’ position in the region, which could have an impact on the geopolitical dynamic in this region, given the fact that the Joe Biden administration has a propensity to force allies and friends to take sides.

Lei Wun-kong is a lawyer based in Macao and litigation and practice senior consultant of Chinese Dream Think Tank. Kacee Ting Wong is a barrister, part-time researcher of Shenzhen University Hong Kong and Macao Basic Law Research Center, chairman of Chinese Dream Think Tank, and a district councilor.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.