The message at an Arab-China business forum hosted by Saudi Arabia this week was not particularly subtle, as hundreds of Chinese officials and executives gathered beneath giant chandeliers, smiling for selfies and snacking on organic dates.
“If you want a trusted partner in the world — one of the best partners in the world — it’s the People’s Republic of China,” Mohammed Abunayyan, the chairman of a Saudi renewable energy company, declared from the stage, to resounding applause. “China is a partner you can depend on,” he said on Sunday, the first of two days of meetings.
The event, attended by more than 3,000 people, came days after a visit to the kingdom by the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, who reaffirmed the U.S.-Saudi relationship after a period of strained ties — including a blowup last year over oil production. Yet at the conclusion of Mr. Blinken’s visit on Thursday, the Saudi foreign minister said that while the kingdom values its close relationship with the United States, it has no plans to distance itself from China, its top trading partner.
Saudi officials often complain that they feel like they cannot rely on the United States, their historical security guarantor, and are seeking to forge a more independent foreign policy.
“We are reaching out to everybody, and whoever wants to come invest with us is more than welcome,” Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the energy minister and a brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler, said at the forum on Sunday.
Asked how he responded to criticism from some corners of the growing ties between Saudi Arabia and China, Prince Abdulaziz responded: “I totally ignore it.”
“There is nothing like a so-called grand design between us and China,” he said. “However I have to say it clearly and bluntly: We’re working with them on so many things.”
This was the 10th Arab-China business conference, but the first time it had been hosted by Saudi Arabia, and by far the largest iteration of the event. Deals announced during the forum included pacts for Chinese companies to invest in copper mining and renewable energy in the kingdom, as well as a $5.6 billion agreement between the Saudi investment ministry and a Chinese electric vehicle company to create a joint venture for research, manufacturing and sales.
Among the Chinese companies invited were several that have landed on American government blacklists for allegations that their activities contribute to the surveillance of Chinese ethnic minorities — limiting their ability to do business with American firms.
These included SenseTime — an artificial intelligence firm specializing in facial recognition — and BGI Group, a genomics company. The U.S. Department of Defense also classified a unit of BGI Group last year as a “Chinese military companies operating in the United States,” even though BGI says its technology was developed for civilian purposes.
Both firms deny the allegations behind their blacklisting, and at the forum, they spoke warmly of their business relationships with the Saudi government, which for BGI Group included setting up laboratories in the kingdom during the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite official claims to the contrary, many Saudis can’t help but frame their growing ties with China in contrast to the waning influence of the United States in the kingdom.
On the campaign trail in 2019, President Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state over human rights violations including the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi — a Saudi exile critical of Prince Mohammed — by Saudi agents in 2018. But then last year, Mr. Biden visited the crown prince and shared a fist bump with him.
The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, received a much grander reception when he visited Saudi Arabia in December. His visit ushered in a “new era of cooperation” between Arab countries and China, said Hu Chunhua, the vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, one of the keynote speakers at the business forum this week.
Saudis are quick to point out they don’t believe China can replace the U.S. as their security guarantor even though the Saudi-China economic relationship is growing. Cultural ties between the two countries are also nascent; very few Saudis speak Chinese compared to English.
Yet officials are eager to change that, with plans to teach Chinese in schools. In the newest terminals at Riyadh’s airport, directional signs include not only Arabic and English, but also Chinese.
In China, Prince Mohammed sees an ally willing to share technology — crucial for his efforts to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy and build up manufacturing in the kingdom. Several speakers at the conference compared the economic changes that Saudi Arabia is going through under Prince Mohammed with the transformation that China experienced several decades ago.
“In human history, every 20 or 30 years there’s something big happening, and the last big economic thing that happened was perhaps the opening of China,” said Ronnie Chan, a Hong Kong real estate developer. “I am witnessing something today in the kingdom that reminded me of what happened 30 or 40 years ago in China.”