The Arab-China summit in Saudi Arabia at the weekend ended with the Riyadh Declaration. It has 24 articles, making it a strategic document for cooperation and development between the signatories from the kingdom itself plus Qatar, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, Algeria and Mauritania at the table with China’s President Xi Jinping. It was similar to the Arab-American summit in Jeddah in July.
Washington must wonder which part of the declaration will come into force first, not least because the US is a significant trading partner of China and a strong competitor of the Gulf States in energy terms, the focus of both China and the Gulf. America’s exports to China are valued at $184.92 billion in the form of soybeans and microchips, but most payments go towards payments for liquefied gas, oil and coke fuel. Saudi Arabia alone exports to China $44 billion worth of oil. Last year, China guaranteed natural gas from Qatar for a period of 27 years in a long-term agreement as part of the North Field East project, with about 4 million tonnes going through the Chinese company Sinopec. This means that the US, which is anticipating from afar the results of the Arab-China summit, is now concerned about the soft infiltration of Beijing in the Middle East, and the soft rebellion of the Arabs away from US influence.
The threat from the US viewpoint is that the Riyadh Declaration allows for trade between the Arab world and China to be paid for in local currencies, not the US dollar, which dominates trade exchange globally. This decision seems to have been planned after the oil countries decided not to increase production in the wake of US and Western sanctions against Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine. The excuse for this was the lack of storage capacity to absorb more production. This was harsh on US President Joe Biden, who got the West, and then the rest of the world, involved in Ukraine, and then deprived everyone of Russian oil because of US sanctions.
That wasn’t Biden’s only mistake; he didn’t take into account the strategic partnership between the US and the Gulf States, on which the US has long relied as an energy reservoir and a major factor in the West. Washington believed that it had a monopoly on the region and its resources, a view reinforced by security and military cooperation, but his position on Iran changed much of this relationship. At a time when the Biden administration is flattering the regime in Tehran without any logical justification, it made the Arabs decide to look for a card that they can play to make Washington reconsider its policies. China was the option because it does not impose impossible conditions like the US and Europe do, nor does it look down on the Arabs with a sense of superiority as the Americans do. Saudi Arabia and the Arabs will never forget Donald Trump and his exploitative visits. Moreover, Beijing is not like Washington, which focuses on what the Arabs view as their least important concern, human rights, so China is a comfortable partner for them. This is an advantage despite the strategic goals of control, but the Arabs, who are supposed to understand this well, say that they will free themselves from the cowboy’s arrogance and see what happens.
In signing the Riyadh Declaration, the Chinese president promised development for those who need it and technology for those who want it. He stressed the sovereignty of the signatory states and refrained from using force or threats against nations already suffering from daily bombing, emphasising the centrality of the Palestinian cause and demanding an end to Israeli violations. Xi also referenced the historical role of Hashemite custodianship over the Islamic and Christian sanctities in Jerusalem after the Palestinian flag was prominent at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
With regard to human rights, he emphasised China’s refusal to politicise the issues and use them as a means to put pressure on states and interfere in their internal affairs. This made the Uyghurs in China an internal matter, along with all prisoners of conscience and marginalised minorities in the Arab countries. In terms of the environment and the Paris Agreement, which the Arabs see as a Western headache targeting their resources, China emphasised global economic growth, which is linked to energy security and availability. This means that there is no fear for them and no worry as long as China’s veto is available at the UN Security Council.
All of this was promised in order to reach one goal that will lead to many goals. The declaration placed the emphasis on mutual cooperation to achieve sustainable development, poverty reduction and eradication, and participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which some see as a soft occupation project implemented by Beijing for about a decade.
This is a long-term project the hopes for which depend on the aspirations of the signatories. There is some degree of anticipation about whether the declaration will alter US and Western policies towards the Arabs. Even if it does, with the possibility of Trump returning to the White House in a couple of years’ time, things could change considerably for the worse.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 12 December 2022
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.