RIYADH: Chinese President Xi Jinping began a visit to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday (Dec 7) that Beijing said marked its biggest diplomatic initiative in the Arab world, as Riyadh expands global alliances beyond a long-standing partnership with the West.
The meeting between the global economic powerhouse and Gulf energy giant comes as Saudi ties with Washington are strained by United States criticism of Riyadh's human rights record and Saudi support for oil output curbs before the November midterm elections.
The White House said Xi's visit was an example of Chinese attempts to exert influence, and that this would not change US policy towards the Middle East.
"We are mindful of the influence that China is trying to grow around the world," White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters.
China, the world's biggest energy consumer, is a major trade partner of Gulf oil and gas producers. Bilateral ties have expanded under the region's economic diversification push, raising US concerns about growing Chinese involvement in sensitive infrastructure in the Gulf.
Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman on Wednesday said that Riyadh would remain a "trusted and reliable" energy partner for Beijing and that the two countries would boost cooperation in energy supply chains by establishing a regional centre in the kingdom for Chinese factories.
Saudi Arabia is China's top oil supplier and Xi's visit takes place while uncertainty hangs over energy markets after Western powers imposed a price cap on sales of oil from Russia, which has been increasing volumes to China with discounted oil.
On Wednesday, Chinese and Saudi firms signed 34 deals for investment in green energy, information technology, cloud services, transport, construction and other sectors, Saudi state news agency SPA reported. It gave no value for the deals, but had earlier said the two countries would seal agreements worth US$30 billion.
Xi was met on arrival by the governor of Riyadh, the kingdom's foreign minister and the governor of sovereign wealth fund PIF.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is expected to offer him a lavish welcome, in contrast with the low-key reception for US President Joe Biden whose censure of Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler formed the backdrop for a strained meeting in July.
Xi will hold bilateral talks with Saudi Arabia and Riyadh will later host a wider meeting with Gulf Arab states and a summit with Arab leaders which will be "an epoch-making milestone in the history of the development of China-Arab relations", foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said.
The Chinese president said he would work with the Gulf Cooperation Council and other Arab leaders "to advance Chinese-Arab relations and Chinese-GCC relations to a new level", SPA reported.
For Riyadh, frustrated by what it sees as Washington's gradual disengagement from the Middle East and a slow erosion of its security guarantees, China offers an opportunity for economic gains without the tensions which have come to cloud the US relationship.
"Beijing does not burden its partners with demands or political expectations and refrains from interfering in their internal affairs," Saudi columnist Abdulrahman Al-Rashed wrote in the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.
Unlike Washington, Beijing retains good ties with Riyadh's regional rival Iran, another supplier of oil to China, and has shown little interest in addressing Saudi political or security concerns in the region.
Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam, had supported China's policies in Xinjiang, where the UN says human rights abuses have been committed against Uyghurs and other Muslims.
Saudi officials have said that regional security would be on the agenda during Xi's visit. The US has for decades been Saudi Arabia's main security guarantor and remains its main defence supplier, but Riyadh has chafed at restrictions on US arms sales to the kingdom.
Riyadh has said it would continue to expand partnerships to serve economic and security interests, despite US reservations about Gulf ties with both Russia and China.