The Arab World Looks to China for the Future

The 10th Arab-China Business Conference, held June 11-12 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, signified the shift of Saudi Arabia and many other countries of the region towards business and economic growth with China. Over 30 trade deals were signed during the two days, worth some $10 billion, but that is just the beginning, according to the organizers.

The closing keynote speech on the second day was delivered by Dilma Rousseff, president of the New Development Bank, who noted that “China and Saudi Arabia have the potential to rewrite the rules of the global energy market, leading the way in diversifying currencies and embracing new models of economic collaboration”. Rousseff added that the China-Saudi partnership can also inspire the Global South to expand internal and external regional trade, offering great possibilities to countries currently marginalized by the traditional international financial system.

In 2022, trade between Arab countries and China surged to a substantial $430 billion, a 31% jump over 2021’s level. Of that amount, Saudi-China bilateral trade was $106 billion. While China had already agreed earlier this year to build a steel plant in Saudi Arabia, a deal was signed during the Business Conference to establish a joint venture for automotive research, development, manufacturing, and sales, and another for the railway companies of the two countries to manufacture rail cars and wheels in Saudi Arabia.

The Arab-China forum followed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s epoch-making meetings March 6-10 in Beijing with Saudi and Iranian representatives, resulting in the process of normalization of relations between them, bridging the Sunni-Shia divide. In late March, Saudi Arabia became a “dialogue partner” in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and since then, Riyadh has also held talks on joining join the New Development Bank.

Many Arab nations are interested in joining the BRICS Plus, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, and the UAE. Shortly after this forum, the Presidents of the last two nations were in Russia where they attended the Saint Petersburg Economic Forum and undoubtedly discussed these perspectives with President Putin. After meeting with Algerian President Tebboune, Vladimir Putin noted that “our efforts to expand mutual transactions in national currencies are crucial”.

The United States has exerted significant pressure on Saudi leaders to avoid closer relations with both China and Russia, including by sending to the Saudi capital U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on May 7, followed by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken two days later. But their threats apparently fell on deaf ears. While Saudi leaders want to maintain good relations ties with Washington, they no longer want to play the West’s ‘watch dog’ in the Arab world. On June 11, when asked about U.S. criticism of Saudi Arabia’s ties with China, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said, “I totally ignore it.”

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