China walks Saudi-Iran tightrope as MBS visits

After Pakistan and India trips, Saudi crown prince begins China visit focused on energy and regional economic deals.

by

    Shenzhen, China - Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has arrived in China where he will meet President Xi Jinping in hopes of bolstering an image tarnished internationally over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey last year.

    The two-day visit in Beijing is expected to focus on energy deals for resource-hungry China and regional economic agreements that align with Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative [BRI], Xi's signature infrastructure initiative spanning across Southeast, South and Central Asia to the Horn of Africa.

    "The leadership in Riyadh and Beijing probably realise the strategic importance of their relationship on the energy front and most recent attempts have been driving it towards cooperation in other areas," Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa expert with the Eurasia Group told Al Jazeera.

    China is Saudi Arabia's largest trading partner, with bilateral trade in goods totalling $63.3bn last year. In 2017, during the last major state visit to Beijing by Saudi Arabia's King Salman, the two sides signed deals worth around $65bn, mostly related to energy and technology.

    "[MBS] is looking for building greater confidence with the Chinese leadership, demonstrating that he has options beyond the West, and showcasing that he remains the heart of the leadership circle and the next king of Saudi Arabia," Kamel said.

    190213212736905

    Besides an audience with Xi, the crown prince will meet Vice Premier of the State Council, Han Zheng, who will chair a China-Saudi High-Level Joint Committee meeting where deals will likely be hashed out.

    Zhu Weilie, director of the China-Arab Cooperation Forum Research Center, wrote in the Shanghai Observer that he believed "development of the economic zone along the Red Sea coast and cooperation on energy" would be the main focus of the talks beginning on Thursday.

    The zone launched by MBS in 2017 under the acronym NEOM is expected to receive around $500bn in investments from Riyadh upon completion.

    Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (right) meets his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in Beijing [How Hwee Young/Pool via Reuters]

    Iran competition 

    With China, the third and final leg of an Asia tour that saw MBS attempt to sidestep friction during high-level meetings in Pakistan and India over a major suicide attack in Indian-administered-Kashmir, getting down to business should be a welcome change for him.

    190218194521839

    Yet Beijing is also attempting a balancing act of its own, having just hosted Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran - Saudi Arabia's regional rival - on Tuesday. At the same time, one of the crown jewels of its BRI programme - Gwadar Port in the Pakistani province of Balochistan - sits at the fulcrum.

    In Pakistan, MBS pledged $10bn in investments for a refinery and petrochemical complex at Gwadar, which lies at the heart of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor - a connection of roads, rail and other infrastructure linking to the port. Gwadar plays a very important role in the Beijing-Islamabad BRI relationship.

    "The port of Gwadar is strategically very important to China as a way to circumvent the Straits of Malacca and the Chinese are not crazy about others in that pond, particularly others that may have a different agenda," James Dorsey, senior fellow at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told Al Jazeera.

    Dorsey said Riyadh might see Balochistan as "an investment target or a place where it could destabilise Iran from" but it is unclear how far China wants Saudi Arabia to get involved, considering Iran's sensitivities.

    Geng Shuang, China's ministry of foreign affairs spokesman, said on Tuesday that the Chinese government was pleased by Saudi Arabia's investment in Pakistan and welcomed the additional participation of third parties in the economic corridor.

    "They are walking a tightrope between Saudi Arabia and Iran," Dorsey said of China. "How long they will be able to do that is a question."

    Kamel said "Iran might sense some anxiety as Riyadh attempts to narrow and curtail Tehran's partnerships in the East and West" but added that Saudi Arabia had other areas to focus on besides its regional foe.

    Uighur issue

    One issue unlikely to come up, however, at least not publicly, is China's treatment of Uighur and other Muslim minorities in its northwestern region of Xinjiang, where it is alleged that an estimated one million people have been detained and sent to "concentration camps" against their will - a charge denied by Beijing which says these are "voluntary" vocational training facilities.

    "Saudi Arabia's silence has been deafening on this," Dorsey said. "Public pressure is very regulated in Saudi Arabia. We don't even know if it exists in regards to the Uighurs."

    190130011449217

    On February 10, the Turkish government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the detentions "a great shame for humanity" and decried the alleged "torture and political brainwashing" in the camps.

    "Turkey's president was responding to public pressure," Dorsey said. "[MBS] doesn't have quite that degree of pressure."

    According to Kamel: "The Uighur issue can be viewed as a strategic lever and important issue for Turkey but Saudi Arabia does not particularly care about this group given its geopolitical competition with Ankara."

    Chas Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia said the crown prince's visit serves many purposes, including advancing Riyadh's goal of becoming less reliant on the United States and muscling in on Iran, which is also wooing China.

    "It shows that, despite his tarnished reputation in the West, his power is respected in the East," Freeman said. "It courts what is clearly the market of the future for Saudi Arabia."

    For China, "a robust relationship with Saudi Arabia opens a market for its increasingly advanced armaments, construction and telecommunications industries and secures an important source of energy imports," added Freeman.

    "It shows that, despite Chinese suppression of Islam in Xinjiang and elsewhere, China can sustain mutually advantageous relationships with a leading Muslim country."

    Is China persecuting its Uighur Muslim minority?

    Inside Story

    Is China persecuting its Uighur Muslim minority?

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News