On 9 December, Saudi Arabia hosted the first Arab-China summit, a rare event marking Beijing's new approach to relations with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The summit which brought together all Arab states and China came five months after another summit that saw President Joe Biden meet with his Arab counterparts. However, while many observers witnessed the success of China's President Xi Jinping, they saw the failure of President Biden's visit. Biden visited Saudi Arabia last summer lobbying for Israel but achieved very little for the United States. Xi, on the other hand, came to the region armed with a new vision for the sake of China.
Beijing wants deeper and stronger ties with the entire Arab world, another example of Chinese economic and political assertiveness. Biden, whose foreign policy makes a point of confronting China, told his Arab hosts last summer that the US will not "walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran;" emphasising that the US is not "going anywhere." President Xi spoke of "carrying forward the spirit of China-Arab friendship."
Almost all major Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are traditional US allies in the Middle East and any Chinese advances in this part of the world would come at the expense of the US. While Washington-Tehran relations are at their lowest, Beijing-Tehran ties are expanding without upsetting Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional rival. So far, Beijing has demonstrated an ability to perform a delicate balancing act in the region. President Xi, in his speech, highlighted "solidarity" and "inclusiveness."
It is worth remembering here that the Saudi Kingdom only recognised China as an independent state in 1990; yet bilateral relations between the two have expanded rather quickly. For example, last year, China bought some $43.9 billion worth of Saudi oil; that is one quarter of the kingdom's oil exports or nearly 77 per cent of Beijing's overall imports from Riyadh. In the same year China spent nearly $5 billion on Saudi plastics and another $5.6 billion buying Saudi organic chemicals. In the same year, Saudi Arabia spent nearly $16.50 billion on Chinese made electrical, electronic goods, machinery and vehicles. Oil, though, remains the main Chinese import from Arab countries like Kuwait, Oman and Iraq.
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In Arab North Africa China has replaced France as Algeria's main exporter with Chinese products dominating the Algerian market. The decades old Algerian-Chinese ties are expanding within Beijing's overall African strategy. Communist China openly supported Algerians in their war of independence against France from 1954 to 1962 – something Algerians always remember with pride. As of 2017 China-Africa trade was three times higher than that of the US with the continent. In geopolitical terms this is another example of China projecting itself as a world economic power house with ambitious long term plans that go beyond trade and commerce.
Despite crude oil being the top export from Arab states to China, the overall bilateral trade between Beijing and Arab nations in 2021 stood at $330 billion. That is an estimated 1.5 per cent increase during the last ten years. It is not only oil that brings the world's second largest economy and Arab countries together. Over the last decade, China's foreign direct investment in the region was estimated at $23 billion and it is likely to increase at least two fold while commerce, in the first three quarters of 2022, was estimated to be around $319 billion.
Chinese foreign ministry figures show an increase in bilateral exchanges that include infrastructure development, oil exploration and medicine. During the COVID-19 pandemic China sent millions of vaccine doses to Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco.
The China-Arab states summit in Saudi Arabia came at a time of shifting international geopolitics following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. This explains the volume increase in trade and wider cooperation between China and the region. The Russian war in Ukraine strained world food networks, leading to shortages around the globe. It also disrupted energy supplies globally, pushing oil prices up.
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This scenario forced many countries to re-focus their foreign policies and the Arab world is no exception. Maybe, for the first time, we witnessed an unusual rupture in relations between the United States and its traditional Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia. In a bow to reality President Joe Biden visited Riyadh last summer hoping to convince the Saudis, the world's largest oil exporter, to help reduce prices by increasing production. However; the Saudis, a powerful member of the oil exporting countries organisation, refused to pump more crude, thereby angering their American guest.
But there is an irony in the Arab-Chinese relations. Beijing has always been on the side of the Palestinians, a central issue for most Arab countries, while Washington has never stopped defending Israel within the UN or in any other international forum. Yet China, despite its power and permanent seat on the UN's Security Council, has never played any direct role in the so-called "peace process" which has been dominated by Washington. But this is another realm of the overall geopolitical competition in the region and Chinese policymakers know this only too well. If Beijing is absent from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict it is not absent from the region as a whole. A fact captured in the final communiqué of the summit.
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The final document, known as the Riyadh Declaration, makes a point of China's unequivocal support for a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital. Beijing sees this position in accordance with the relevant UN resolutions. The Declaration also pointed out that Israeli "settlements are illegitimate," not only in occupied Palestinian land but in other "Arab land" occupied by Israel in Syria and Lebanon. To Beijing's satisfaction, the final communiqué pointed out that the Arab world supports the "One China" policy that includes Taiwan, a fundamental cornerstone of Beijing's foreign policy.
Many observers believe that it is rather long overdue for the Arabs to reach out to China. China, after all, is a permanent member of the UN Security Council where many Arab countries, like Libya for example, still need Chinese support.
By coming to the summit, President Xi Jinping wanted to send a message; that China can, and will, build bridges even in regions that are traditionally allied to its Western rivals, particularly the US.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.