A Saudi-China business summit underscores growing ties

A Saudi-China business summit underscores growing ties

The message was not particularly subtle at an Arab-China business forum hosted by Saudi Arabia this week, as hundreds of Chinese officials and officials gathered under giant chandeliers, smiling for selfies and snacking on organic dates.

“If you want a reliable partner in the world – one of the best partners in the world – it is the People’s Republic of China,” Mohammed Abunayyan, chairman of a Saudi renewable energy company, announced from the stage to thunderous applause. “China is a partner you can depend on,” he said on Sunday at the first of two days of meeting.

More than 3,000 people attended the event, with US Secretary of State Antony J. It came days after a state visit by Blinken, who reaffirmed US-Saudi ties after a period of strained relations – including an eruption last year. oil production. Yet at the conclusion of Mr Blinken’s visit on Thursday, the Saudi foreign minister said that while the kingdom values ​​its close ties with the United States, it has no plans to distance itself from China, its top trading partner. Is.

Saudi officials often complain that they feel they cannot rely on the United States, their historic security guarantor, and are seeking to pursue a more independent foreign policy.

“We are reaching out to everyone, and anyone who wants to invest with us is welcome,” Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, energy minister and a brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler, said on stage. on Sunday.

Asked how he responded to criticism from some corners of growing ties between Saudi Arabia and China, Prince Abdulaziz replied: “I completely ignore it.”

“There is nothing like the so-called grand design between us and China,” he said. “Although I have to say it clearly and plainly: We are working with them on a number of things.”

It was the 10th Arab-China business summit, but the first time it was hosted by Saudi Arabia, and the largest iteration of the event to date. Deals announced during the forum included $5.6 billion for Chinese companies to invest in copper mining and renewable energy in the kingdom, as well as a joint venture between the Saudi Investment Ministry and a Chinese electric vehicle company to research, manufacture and Compromise was involved. sales.

Among the Chinese companies invited were several that have landed on US government blacklists over allegations that their activities contribute to the surveillance of Chinese ethnic minorities – limiting their ability to do business with American firms.

These include SenseTime – an artificial intelligence firm specializing in facial recognition – and BGI Group, a genomics company. The US Department of Defense also last year classified a unit of BGI Group as one of “Chinese military companies operating in the United States”, even though BGI says its technology was developed for civilian purposes.

Both companies deny their blacklisting allegations, and on stage, they spoke warmly of their business ties with the Saudi government, which included the founding of BGI Group. laboratories in the state during the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite official claims to the contrary, many Saudis can’t help but shape their growing relationship with China as the opposite of undermining the United States’ influence in the kingdom.

On the campaign trail in 2019, President Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “no-touch” state over human rights violations, including the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in 2018. The following year, Mr. Biden met and sparred with the crown prince.

When Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia in December, he was accorded a grand welcome. His visit ushered in a “new era of cooperation” between Arab countries and China, said Hu Chunhua, vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, who was a keynote speaker at a business forum this week.

The Saudis were quick to point out that they do not believe Saudi-China economic ties are growing, yet China can replace the US as their security guarantor. Cultural ties between the two countries are also nascent; Very few Saudis speak Chinese compared to English.

Yet officials are keen to change this with plans to teach Chinese in schools. In the newest terminals at Riyadh’s airport, directional signs include not only Arabic and English, but also Chinese.

In China, Prince Mohammed sees an ally willing to share technology – vital to his efforts to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy and build up manufacturing in the kingdom. Several speakers at the conference compared the economic transformations that Saudi Arabia is undergoing under the leadership of Prince Mohammed with the transformation that China experienced several decades ago.

“In human history, something big happens every 20 or 30 years, and the last big economic thing that happened was probably the opening of China,” said Ronnie Chan, a Hong Kong real estate developer. “I see something in the state today that reminds me of what happened in China 30 or 40 years ago.”

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