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Chinese Xi will visit Saudi Arabia from Wednesday

Chinese President Xi Jinping will pay a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia this week, meeting with the king and de facto ruler of the world’s largest oil exporter.

The Chinese leader will arrive on Wednesday, the official Saudi news agency said, on only his third trip abroad since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and his first to Saudi Arabia since 2016.

Xi, head of the world’s second-largest economy, will also attend a summit with rulers of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council and talks with leaders elsewhere in the Middle East, bolstering China’s growing ties with the region.

The bilateral summit, chaired by King Salman and attended by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, comes after Xi secured a historic third term in November.

Xi’s visit reflects “much deeper relations developed in recent years” between the two countries, said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst close to the government.

“As the largest importer of Saudi oil, China is a key partner and military relations have developed strongly,” he said, adding that he expected “the signing of a number of agreements.”

From the cold

The visit also coincides with heightened tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United States on issues ranging from energy policy to regional security and human rights.

The latest blow to that decade-long partnership came in October, when oil bloc OPEC+ agreed to cut production by two million barrels a day, a move the White House said amounted to “aligning with Russia” on the war in Ukraine.

On Sunday, OPEC+ decided to maintain those cuts.

Shihabi said the timing was “coincidence and not directed at the United States”.

Xi last visited Saudi Arabia in 2016, the year before Prince Mohammed became first-in-line to the throne, in a trip that also included stops in Egypt and Saudi rival Iran .

Prince Mohammed visited China and met Xi on an Asia tour in 2019, the year before the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

This week’s meeting will close a year in which Saudi Arabia, and Prince Mohammed in particular, has returned from the cold after the fierce international protest that erupted over the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the consulate of the kingdom of Istanbul.

This year, Prince Mohammed has already welcomed then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Joe Biden, who greeted the crown prince with a fist in Jeddah, canceling the 2019 pledge to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah”.

Oil turmoil

China buys about a quarter of Saudi oil exports.

The oil market was thrown into turmoil with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

The G7 and the European Union agreed on a price cap of $60 a barrel for Russian oil on Friday in a bid to deny the Kremlin revenue to continue the war, fueling further uncertainty.

“Oil will likely be higher on the agenda than when Biden visited,” said Torbjorn Soltvedt of risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft.

“These are the two most important players in the oil market: Saudi Arabia on the supply side and then China on the demand side.”

There is potential for the two sides to intensify cooperation in the development of infrastructure such as refineries.

Beyond energy, analysts say the two countries’ leaders should discuss potential deals that could see Chinese firms become more deeply involved in mega-projects that are central to Prince Mohammed’s vision to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil. .

These projects include a futuristic $500 billion megacity known as NEOM, a so-called cognitive city that will depend heavily on facial recognition and surveillance technology.