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Beijing, Gulf Nations Expected to Sign Dozens of Deals at Summit

Saudi King Salman, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands in Beijing, China, March 16, 2017.
Saudi King Salman, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands in Beijing, China, March 16, 2017.

After nearly two years of preparation, the first summit between China and the Arab states is scheduled for this week, a meeting Beijing describes as a "milestone" in Sino-Arab relations.

The Global Times, a daily newspaper affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, said in an opinion column Tuesday that "the summit conforms to the trend of the development of the times and will become an epoch-making milestone in the history of China-Arab relations. … The China-Arab friendly cooperation is set to enter a new stage."

The Chinese delegation is expected to sign dozens of agreements and memoranda of understanding with Arab states, deals that cover issues such as energy, security and investments, according to Reuters.

The Saudi Press Agency confirmed Tuesday that King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia has extended an invitation to Chinese leader Xi Jinping to visit the kingdom December 7-9 for three gatherings: a Saudi-Chinese summit, an Arab-Chinese summit and a Gulf Cooperation Council-Chinese summit.

Xinhua News, China’s official state news agency, announced Wednesday that Xi will be attending the three summits. This will be one of his rare trips outside China since COVID-19 was first identified in humans in Wuhan in December 2019.

Grant Rumley, a Goldberger fellow with The Washington Institute's Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation Program, who served in both the Trump and the Biden administrations as an adviser for Middle East policy, told VOA Mandarin in a phone interview that a number of Arab leaders will attend the summit and that a lot of public declarations of friendliness are expected.

Arab countries' ties with China have grown stronger as the United States appears to be stepping back from traditional Middle East partners such as Saudi Arabia.

"There is a feeling in the region that the United States is actively on the way out, and that's an opportunity for China," Gedaliah Afterman, head of the Asia policy program at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at Reichman University in Israel, told the New York Times in February.

In 2021, bilateral trade between the Arab world and China reached more than $300 billion, an increase of 37% over the previous year, according to Xinhua, China's official state news agency. In 2021, China imported 265 million tons of crude oil from Arab countries, which made up 51.6% of its all imported crude oil, according to the Xinhua report.

China has established 12 strategic partnerships with Arab countries at the bilateral level, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a report on Sino-Arab cooperation released last week, adding that China intends to use the first Sino-Arab Summit as an opportunity to build what it calls a "Sino-Arab community of common destiny" with Arab countries.

John Calabrese, a professor at American University and director of the Middle East-Asia Program at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said that while China's form of government differs from the monarchies of the Gulf states, "in broad strokes, those governments are, you know, have possessed roughly similar authoritarian characteristics."

"From the standpoint of Western perspectives on human rights records, and on political processes, China and most Middle Eastern countries and governments share an approach that they want to push back against, you know, criticism and public denunciation of human-rights records," he told VOA Mandarin in a phone interview.

The expansion of Chinese influence in the Middle East is not just in the energy and trade sectors but is spilling into security cooperation, Rumley said.

"I think China sees an emerging market and an opportunity to not only advance its own arms sales and security cooperation but also perhaps chip away at traditional security partnerships countries in the region might have with the U.S," he added.

Rumley said, for example, that the United States has been reluctant to sell armed drones to Middle Eastern countries, but China has stepped up selling CH-4 and Wing Loong drones to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Rumley added that he does not believe China is trying to "replace the United States as the main security guarantor," but that Beijing is motivated by economic reasons and a desire to boost its own defense industry so it can position itself as an alternative seller to the United States.

"A lot of these countries, their security relationships point to the U.S., but their economic relationships point towards China," Rumley said. "I think it's unrealistic for the U.S. to expect countries in the Middle East or around the world to choose between a relationship with [the U.S.] and a relationship with China."

Bo Gu contributed to this report.