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Xi Jinping visits Saudi Arabia as China looks to grow its Mideast footprint

China's leader Xi Jinping (center) walks with Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman (right), following an official welcoming ceremony at the Palace of Yamamah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday.
RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA - DECEMBER 8: (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY â MANDATORY CREDIT - 'ROYAL COURT OF SAUDI ARABIA / HANDOUT' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) Chinese President, Xi Jinping (C) meets by Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (R) following an official welcoming ceremony at the Palace of Yamamah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on December 8, 2022. Chinese President Jinping is in Saudi Arabia to attend China-Arab States Summit and the China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit. (Photo by Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Updated December 8, 2022 at 8:51 AM ET

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — China's leader, Xi Jinping, is in Saudi Arabia for a visit showcasing Beijing's ambitions to expand its influence in the Gulf, a region traditionally seen as a close U.S. security partner.

For Xi, who recently secured a third term in power, the trip is a chance to grow China's foothold in the Middle East and rival the United States. China wants to export more of its technology and deepen its investments in areas like ports, mining, nuclear technology and defense in the Middle East.

For Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the visit is an opportunity to cement his place as the prime minister of a country seen as a regional anchor and heavyweight.

Xi met with Saudi leaders on Thursday. And the kingdom is hosting summits for Xi with Gulf Arab leaders and heads of state from other Mideast countries on Friday.

Oil and defense are at the heart of Saudi-China ties

While Saudi Arabia and China are expected to announce billions of dollars in new deals, they are interdependent on one another for oil. The Gulf states rely on China as a top buyer of their oil exports.

"The bottom line here is that China is tethered to the Middle East, to the Gulf in particular, specifically because of its energy security needs," said John Calabrese, an assistant professor at American University, who also heads the Middle East Asia Project at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Prince Mohammed, however, is seeking to diversify Saudi Arabia's economy away from reliance on oil exports. As part of that larger vision to bolster the kingdom's independence and economic might, he's aiming to build a homegrown Saudi defense industry. China is seen as an important partner in providing the technology and know-how to build out the kingdom's defenses. The kingdom is also looking to China for nuclear technology.

Xi's visit raises pressure on the U.S. in the Mideast

President Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia in July was controversial. He was unable to secure greater oil production from the Saudis, who would soon lead an effort to cut oil production by some 2 million barrels a day. There were also conflicting reports about what was said between the president and the Saudi crown prince concerning human rights and the killing of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi by agents who worked for Prince Mohammed in late 2018.

Bernard Heykal, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University who has had ties with the Saudi royal court, wrote in the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news website that China is eroding Washington's role as a regional powerbroker. He said the relationship between Riyadh and Washington under President Biden has been marred by criticism of Saudi Arabia's human rights record.

China has been steadily deepening its economic ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia over the years. Heykal notes that China has positioned itself as a partner by supplying weapons like armed drones to Gulf states that the United States has refused to do.

A chance to assert the Gulf's autonomy

Gulf Arab officials have long expressed concerns that the U.S. is increasingly disengaging from the region and focused on countering China in East Asia.

The Gulf is now ruled by relatively young and assertive leaders in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. While these countries still heavily rely on the United States for their national security needs and weapons sales, they're resisting pressure to pick sides in the global competition for supremacy between the United States on one side and China and Russia on the other.

If anything, they're maintaining ties with all sides and leveraging this competition to their own advantage, Calabrese said. This visit by Xi is an example of how they refuse to be pulled to any one side.

"Gulf leaders understand that the current geopolitical situation invites, it permits a kind of, you know, opportunism on their part," he said. "They now see themselves in a position to leverage their relationship with the United States and, to some extent, to play the U.S. and China against each other in ways that they perceive may benefit their own national interests."

The visit marks only the third time for Xi to travel abroad since the coronavirus pandemic began three years ago. It is also the first time he's left China since protests erupted against his government's COVID-19 lockdown policies. The government responded to those protests by loosening some measures this week, including allowing people to quarantine at home rather than a state facility if they test positive for the virus.

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