President Xi Jinping has touched down in Riyadh on Wednesday, kicking off a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia this week to meet with the king, in what marks his third trip outside the country since the coronavirus pandemic began, and his first to the kingdom since 2016 - or over six years. He was greeted with a lavish reception at the airport as the royals rolled out the red carpet, in notable contrast with Biden's somewhat muted presence in Jeddah in mid-July.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported that King Salman initiated an invite for the Chinese leader "to bolster historic ties and strategic partnership between the two countries." China's Foreign Ministry only unveiled and confirmed the trip Wednesday morning, hours before Xi's plane entered Saudi airspace, after months of rumors of the impending official visit. SPA noted that initial agreements worth nearly $30 billion are to be signed during the bilateral summit, against the backdrop of the China-Arab States Summit and the China-GCC Summit in Riyadh, which will be chaired by King Salman and attended by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
Regional outlet Al Jazeera previewed that the trip is expected to be a much more celebratory atmosphere compared to President Joe Biden's summer trip wherein he more or less groveled to get the Saudis to urgently pump more oil, which they later slammed the door shut on. According to the publication:
China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner and MBS is expected to give Xi a lavish welcome when he lands in Riyadh on Wednesday, a marked contrast to the muted reception given to US President Joe Biden in July.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning hailed what Beijing expects to be "an epoch-making milestone in the history of the development of China-Arab relations," with the summit.
An op-ed pinned to the top of China's Global Times appeared to take a subtle swipe at fraying US-Saudi relations, meanwhile. "For the Arab world, a region with highly varying levels of economic development and complex internal conflicts among countries, it is rare that a unanimous friendly attitude toward China and strong expectations for cooperation can be formed and sustained for a long time," GT wrote.
Chinese President Xi Jinping just arrived Riyadh to attend the first China-Arab States Summit and the China-Gulf Cooperation Council summit, and pay a state visit to Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦 pic.twitter.com/yPN0meNo9m— Sui Lixi (@lixi_sui) December 7, 2022
Interestingly, the state communist mouthpiece presented China's 'stability' in contrast with the "political turmoil" of the last decade's Arab Spring.
Speaking of Middle East regional countries, GT said: "They also experienced the severe impact of the 'Arab Spring' after entering the 21st century. Avoiding political turmoil while achieving stable economic growth has become a common desire of many Arab countries."
"They are keenly interested in China’s experience, which China is willing to share with its Arab partners without reservation. Unlike some powers that have entered the Middle East with a superior posture and focused on geopolitical and security issues, China shares the hardships of the Arab countries in the struggle for national liberation," GT continued.
President Xi’s state visit to Saudi Arabia will elevate the China-Saudi Arabia comprehensive strategic partnership to a new height. pic.twitter.com/vNgyvbL8yZ— Spokesperson发言人办公室 (@MFA_China) December 7, 2022
During Xi's visit, which goes through Friday, all eyes will also be on any exchanged commentary regarding stability of crude supply in addition to the expected economic and nuclear energy deals being discussed, after in October Saudi Energy Minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, and Zhang Jianhua, the director of China’s National Energy Administration (NEA), pledged strengthened ties and deeper coordination in the energy sector.
Analyzing what's at stake and the potential impact in Saudi-US relations from Xi's trip, prominent D.C.-based Saudi banker and former political insider Ali Shihabi commented: "Saudi is, of course, not indifferent to the US which continues to be a key partner. But the Kingdom has learned the hard way that the US cannot be relied on consistently for support."
And another Saudi watcher, Theodore Karasik of the Jamestown Foundation, told Fox Business, "I would argue that this is a big turning point" - adding that "It's probably an inflection point for the region in terms of China's presence, and it means that Beijing is no longer a competitor to them."
This, he argued is due to the "shifting security environment, and because of where geoeconomics is heading, the logical choice for the Saudis is to go east." Of course, the Washington weapons pipeline and US-Saudi defense alliance is still likely to remain unaltered, even as all priority by the West is placed on Ukraine.