When Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Saudi Arabia on December 7 for his first visit since 2016, he was welcomed with a lavish reception. Fighter jets escorted his plane into Saudi airspace, a purple carpet was rolled out, and cannons were fired. Saudi Arabia's de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), welcomed Xi the next day with a ceremony, during which Xi's car was escorted by members of the Saudi Royal Guard on horseback and carrying the flags of both countries, followed by a welcoming banquet.
The contrast to the low-key reception of US President Joe Biden last July could hardly have been greater. Biden took a longstanding ally, Saudi Arabia, and, by repeating that he would make the kingdom a "pariah nation," created an adversary.
"For an American president to be silent on the issue of human rights is inconsistent with who we are and who I am," Biden said. The same concern for human rights has not seemed to bother him, however, when it comes to China or Iran, whose record on human rights is at least as bad as Saudi Arabia's, if not worse.
China jumped in to fill the vacuum.
Saudi Arabia is now not only one of China's most important suppliers of energy -- a leading American industry that the Biden administration abandoned on day one -- but the kingdom is also an important link in China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) -- a gigantic global development project that Chinese President Xi Jinping launched in 2013 to build an economic and infrastructure network connecting Asia with Europe, Africa and beyond. The BRI seeks dramatically to enhance China's global influence from East Asia to Europe by making countries worldwide increasingly dependent on China. Under the BRI, China has signed cooperation agreements with 20 Arab countries.
China is also Saudi Arabia's largest trading partner -- an arrangement that extends to military cooperation, which China's Minister of National Defense, Wei Fenghe, and Saudi Arabia's Deputy Defense Minister, Khalid bin Salman, agreed to boost in January.
During Xi's visit, furthering the continued expansion and deepening of ties between the two countries, Saudi Arabia and China signed a series of strategic deals, including a "comprehensive strategic partnership agreement" and another with Huawei Technologies on cloud computing, data centers and building high-tech complexes in Saudi cities. The two countries also signed numerous agreements on hydrogen energy, Chinese language education, digital economy, and an "alignment plan" between China's BRI and Saudi Arabia's economic diversification program.
Chinese and Saudi firms additionally signed 34 deals on investment in green energy, information technology, cloud services, transport, construction and other sectors, estimated to be worth around $30 billion.
In an op-ed published in the Saudi newspaper Al Riyadh, Xi described his visit to the kingdom as ushering in "a new era in China's relations with the Arab world, with Arab states of the Gulf, and with Saudi Arabia." He also highlighted the inroads that China made in the Middle East in recent years:
"China has established comprehensive strategic partnership or strategic partnership with 12 Arab states, and signed documents on Belt and Road cooperation with 20 Arab states."
At the end of Xi's visit to Saudi Arabia, he participated in two inaugural summits, which he described as "milestone events in the history of China-Arab relations": the China-Arab summit and the China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit.
China's visit to Saudi Arabia and the two summits can be said to represent a culmination, thus far, of China's attempts to take over the Middle East: non-violent means of gaining power over the entire region, as described by Dr. Mordechai Chaziz, author of the book, China's Middle East Diplomacy: The Belt and Road Strategic Partnership:
"The connection between the BRI and the strategic partnerships it creates in the region... allows it to gradually take over the region without creating tensions with the U.S. or the West. In other words, the BRI is a sophisticated Chinese plan to transfer hegemony from the West and the U.S. to China without war or conflict."
At the China-GCC Summit on December 9, Xi told Arab Gulf leaders that China would work to buy oil and gas from them and pay in Chinese yuan, a move that China and Saudi Arabia have previously discussed. Such a change could be highly disruptive to the US, especially if it were to be used throughout the Gulf. Using the yuan would considerably bolster China in its ambition to strengthen the yuan while weakening the US dollar's status as the world's reserve currency -- and potentially weakening the US still further internationally. The status of the US dollar depends on its dominance of global markets, especially the oil market, where 80% of sales are conducted in US dollars.
Xi, in his speech to the Arab Gulf leaders at the China-GCC summit, said that in the next three to five years China would work with the Gulf countries on a number of priority areas that would include the following:
All-dimensional energy cooperation, including settling oil and gas trade in yuan; "peaceful use" of nuclear technology, including the establishment of a China-GCC nuclear security demonstration center; finance and investment cooperation, including the setting up of a joint investment commission, a China-GCC forum on industrial and investment cooperation and deepening digital currency cooperation; expanding new areas of cooperation on innovation, science and technology with China setting up big data and cloud computing centers in the Gulf countries, strengthening 5G and 6G technology cooperation and setting up a China-GCC cooperation mechanism in meteorological science and technology; aerospace cooperation, including the possible establishment of a China-GCC joint center for lunar and deep space exploration.
Finally, Xi mentioned China's use of its soft power to increase its influence by "nurturing new highlights in language and cultural cooperation." He said that China will "cooperate" with 300 universities, and middle and primary schools in GCC countries on Chinese language education and work with GCC countries to set up Chinese language learning and testing centers and online Chinese classes. He also suggested a China-GCC language and culture forum, and the compilation of "a bilingual library for people-to-people and cultural exchanges and mutual learning."
At the China-GCC Summit, Xi did not fail to mention the strides that China has made for itself in gaining influence in the Middle East.
"China and Arab states have set an example for South-South cooperation in pursuing mutually beneficial collaboration. The two sides have established 17 cooperation mechanisms under the framework of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum. Over the past decade, our trade has grown by 100 billion U.S. dollars, with the total volume exceeding 300 billion dollars; China's direct investment in Arab states was up by 2.6 times, with the stock of investment reaching 23 billion dollars; over 200 Belt and Road projects have been carried out, benefiting nearly two billion people of the two sides."
Xi's visit to Saudi Arabia and his meetings with Arab state leaders put on display the influence that China wields in the Middle East, a fact that was not lost on the United States, which has been warning about China's influence in the region.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on December 7:
"We are mindful of the influence that China is trying to grow around the world. The Middle East is certainly one of those regions where they want to deepen their level of influence.
"We believe that many of the things they're trying to pursue and the manner in which they're trying to pursue it [sic] are not conducive to preserving the international rules-based order...We are not asking nations to choose between the United States and China, but as the president has said many times, we believe that in this strategic competition the United States is certainly well poised to lead."
"Competition"? Xi has made no secret of his wishes to "replace America as the Global Superpower" economically, militarily, diplomatically and technologically by 2049. The United States might be "well poised to lead," but is it leading? Kirby's warnings, unfortunately, constitute too little, much too late.
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.