Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Saudi Arabia today
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) - Chinese President Xi Jinping will make a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia this week, meeting the king and de facto ruler of the world's biggest oil exporter.
The Chinese leader will arrive on Wednesday, the official Saudi Press Agency said, for only his third trip abroad since the coronavirus pandemic began and his first to Saudi Arabia since 2016.
Xi, head of the world's number-two economy, will also attend a summit with rulers from the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council and talks with leaders from elsewhere in the Middle East, strengthening China's growing ties with the region.
His bilateral summit, chaired by King Salman and attended by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom's de facto ruler, comes after Xi secured a historic third term in November.
Xi's visit reflects "much deeper relations developed in recent years" between the two countries, said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst close to the government.
"As the largest importer of Saudi oil, China is a critically important partner and military relations have been developing strongly," he said, adding that he expected "a number of agreements to be signed".
The visit also coincides with heightened tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United States over issues ranging from energy policy to regional security and human rights.
The latest blow to that decades-old partnership came in October when the OPEC+ oil bloc agreed to cut production by two million barrels a day, a move the White House said amounted to "aligning with Russia" on the war in Ukraine.
On Sunday, OPEC+ opted to keep those cuts in place. Shihabi said the timing was "a coincidence and not directed at US".
In from the cold
Xi last visited Saudi Arabia in 2016, the year before Prince Mohammed became first in line to the throne, on a trip that also featured stops in Egypt and Saudi rival Iran.
Prince Mohammed visited China and met with Xi on an Asia tour in 2019, the year before the coronavirus pandemic took hold. This week's meeting will cap a year in which Saudi Arabia, and specifically Prince Mohammed, have come in from the cold following the fierce international outcry that erupted over the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom's Istanbul consulate.
This year, Prince Mohammed has already welcomed Britain's then-prime minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Joe Biden, who greeted the crown prince with a fist bump in Jeddah, reversing a 2019 pledge to make Saudi Arabia "a pariah".
China purchases roughly a quarter of Saudi oil exports. The oil market was thrown into turmoil with Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February. The G7 and European Union on Friday agreed a $60-per-barrel price cap on Russian oil in an attempt to deny the Kremlin revenues to keep up the war, stoking further uncertainty.
"Oil will probably be higher up the agenda than it was when Biden visited," said Torbjorn Soltvedt of the risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft. "These are the two most important players in the oil market –- Saudi on the supply side, and then China on the demand side."
There is potential for the two sides to ramp up cooperation in developing infrastructure like refineries. Beyond energy, analysts say leaders from the two countries are expected to discuss potential deals that could see Chinese firms become more deeply involved in mega-projects that are central to Prince Mohammed's vision of diversifying the Saudi economy away from oil.
Those projects include a futuristic $500 billion megacity known as NEOM, a so-called cognitive city that will depend heavily on facial recognition and surveillance technology.