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China's leader arrives in Saudi Arabia for meetings and a summit


This past summer, President Biden went to Saudi Arabia, addressed a summit of Arab leaders and made a promise. The promise was that America would stay engaged in the region, not leave a vacuum to be filled by Russia or China. Well, today, China's leader, Xi Jinping, arrived in the Saudi capital for meetings and his own summit on Friday. The visit offers a glimpse into how the U.S.-China rivalry is playing out in the Middle East. NPR's Aya Batrawy joins me now from Dubai. Hey there, Aya.


KELLY: Hi. All right. I want to start with the two leaders at the center here, Xi Jinping and his host, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Why might each of these men want this summit now?

BATRAWY: So for Xi, this is his first trip abroad since rare protests broke out in China against his government's COVID-19 policies. So this is a chance for him to bring back focus to China's power and its influence in a part of the world that is crucial to Beijing's economic survival because of oil. This relationship is also based on a mutual understanding that neither side is going to be raising concerns over human rights. You'll recall that President Biden did raise the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the summer. Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents in Turkey four years ago. So for Prince Mohammed bin Salman, this visit is another opportunity to move beyond the global outcry over that killing and to demonstrate that he's able to bring the world's most powerful leaders to his doorstep.

KELLY: OK. So that's what each of these leaders might be looking for. What about substantive issues? What does China want from the region?

BATRAWY: For one thing, China is the Gulf's biggest buyer of oil. The two are economically interdependent. China is also seeking a range of new investments in Saudi Arabia and to expand its footprint from East Asia to Europe. So it's going to be looking to invest in ports, tourism, mining, technology and weapons. Saudi Arabia is trying to move away from its dependence on oil exports, create its own nuclear program, create a local defense industry. And China is seen as a really important partner in all those industries. But at its core, this relationship is about energy security. I spoke with John Calabrese, who heads the Mideast-Asia Project (ph) at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

JOHN CALABRESE: Insofar as the future of oil, I think we're looking at not just one decade but several decades out before oil will be phased out, you know, in any large, consuming country, China being one of them. So, I mean, 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.

KELLY: Aya, stay with that point he just made about how China is tethered to the Middle East, because I want to broaden this out. If you look at Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, other Arab leaders, what are they looking for from this visit?

BATRAWY: So this is a region - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates - that's being led by relatively young new leaders who are really trying to assert a new autonomy and independence. And what that means is that while they still heavily rely on the United States for their national security needs and their weapons sales, they're refusing to pick sides in this global competition between the United States on one side and China or Russia on the other. And Xi's visit is an example of how they refuse to be pulled to anyone's side. I've spoken to Gulf officials here over the years, and they've been saying that there's a perception that the United States is an unreliable partner and that there's major swings in foreign policy from Republicans to Democrats. And that continues to be a major concern for them.

KELLY: Is NPR's Aya Batrawy reporting from Dubai. Thank you.

BATRAWY: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.