Chinese leader Xi Jinping's visit to Saudi Arabia coincides with a summit of Arab leaders. Experts say the meeting is not about Arab nations choosing sides between China and the US though.
Even before the China-Arab summit begins in Saudi Arabia at the end of this week, the Chinese were eager to emphasize the role they want to play in the Middle East.
Early this month, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released a 19,000-word report on "China-Arab Cooperation in a New Era" stressing that Beijing was "a strategic partner and sincere friend" that would play a constructive role in the Middle East and avoid doing anything in its own "geopolitical self-interest."
But the China-Arab event is not being held "to specifically irritate the US," according to Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University in the US and an expert on Saudi Arabia.
"The Saudis have a very strong economic relationship with China and Xi Jinping was supposed to come earlier," Haykel told DW. "The visit was cancelled a few times because of various [COVID-19] lockdowns, among other things."
Experts DW spoke with said it wasn't initially obvious what this week's summit, which at least 14 heads of Arab state are expected to attend, might bring, although it will most likely be trade-related.
"It is difficult to predict what the tangible outcomes of the China-Arab summit this week will be because it's happening under a very broad umbrella," Hasan al-Hasan, a Bahrain-based research fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told DW. "Mainly because the summit involves states with widely varying economic profiles."
Such a visit by the Chinese leader should not come as a surprise, experts added, since economic ties between China and Arab nations have been growing for years.
According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, bilateral trade between China and Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, totaled around $2.48 trillion (€2.37 trillion) in 2021. Of these, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates did the most business with China altogether. In fact, China is now Saudi Arabia's largest trading partner.
Over the same period, bilateral trade with the EU and US only added up to $1.3 trillion and $62.6 billion, respectively.
Al-Hasan said the summit is most likely to showcase China's role as a provider of development funds and business, and for Saudi Arabia to demonstrate its leadership role in the Arab world. If anything substantial does come out of this week's summit, it will likely pertain to Saudi Arabia or the Gulf countries, al-Hasan argued, rather than other attendees like Iraq.
Experts suggest that the summit's results could range from purely symbolic to genuinely substantial.
For example, the former could involve a series of memorandums of understanding that could have a real impact on bilateral business. That latter might include progress on a free trade agreement between China and the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC. The Council includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman.
Although the China-GCC free trade agreement has been debated for almost two decades now, it may be closer to reality than ever. In November this year, the Chinese ambassador to the UAE suggested negotiations were in the final stages.
Moving away from oil
Chinese companies already play a significant role in many Middle Eastern nations, with Chinese direct investments as well as many large infrastructure contracts awarded to Chinese companies.
Chinese firms are building ports and free trade zones in the region, including in Oman, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Cooperation between China and Arab nations has also grown to include digital technology, renewable energies, tourism and aviation. Most of the GCC countries use China's controversial Huawei technology in their communications networks.
"For the Chinese, the priority [in Riyadh] is economic — at least in the short to medium term," said Naser al-Tamimi, a political economist and senior research associate with the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI). Unlike some of China's other potential markets in Asia or Africa, Gulf countries are flush with cash and offer a stable, political environment in which to do business.
"The amount being spent [on diversification] is staggering and the Chinese won't let an opportunity like that go by," noted al-Tamimi, whose work focuses on Asia-Gulf relations.
Controversial arms cooperation
However, some of the increasing cooperation is more controversial and includes domestic production of military equipment. The Saudis are developing their own missiles and drones with Chinese help, while the UAE has purchased Chinese fighter jets.
"Anything the Americans won't sell them, the Saudis will try and get elsewhere," Princeton's Haykel noted. At the same time though, he added, the US remains the most important ally for Saudi Arabia and others.
Even a brief glance at the numbers shows where the focal point of each partnership lies. China might be the Saudis' biggest trading partner, but Saudi arms trade with the Chinese only totaled $245 million between 2013 and 2021. Meanwhile, the arms trade between the Saudis and the US in that same period equaled $17.9 billion.
Occasionally, there have also been tensions in the sensitive areas where trade and military interests intersect.
In 2021, the UAE suspended talks to purchase US fighter jets, partially because of American fears that the UAE's Chinese technology provider, Huawei, might be able to steal military secrets from the heavily networked F-35 stealth jets. The Emiratis ended up buying Chinese planes instead. Also in 2021, a secretive project being built inside a commercial UAE port, under Chinese construction, was ended after US pressure. American intelligence agencies believed that this hidden part of the port project was being used for maritime spying.
Some of the details of closer cooperation are deliberately being kept quiet, Haykel said.
"That's just part of the Saudis' hedging strategy, where the country is building closer relationships with China and other countries" he noted.
A new world order?
"We have also seen an upgrading of Saudi ties with other countries," added al-Hasan. This includes India, Japan and South Korea. "Essentially, partners that are seen as more likely and more willing to transfer technology and knowledge."
But that is also why, the experts agreed, fears of a new illiberal world order — where world powers line up in a "de-Westernized" geopolitical constellation with democratic nations in a showdown with non-democratic ones — are overblown.
"The world is changing and power is becoming more diffuse," al-Hasan said. "And yes, Gulf states are pursuing their own interests even when those may diverge from their Western partners;" he said. "But that is because now, these states — along with others we would have called the Global South in the past — are more confident, more capable and more likely to want to pursue their own interests. That is a perfectly rational thing to want to do."