King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud’s first visit outside the Middle East after he became king was to China. His January 2006 trip to Beijing, five months after succeeding his half-brother, was the first by a Saudi monarch to the People’s Republic since diplomatic relations were established in 1990.
His decision to visit China, rather than the US, was a sign of the growing importance of Riyadh’s trade ties with Beijing.
In the two decades since 1990, there have been numerous other visits by senior officials from both countries, paving the way for a series of trade deals, including a strategic oil partnership agreed during a visit to Riyadh by the then president of China, Jiang Zemin, in 1999.
Under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia has also signed agreements with China covering economic co-operation, trade and tax. But energy and its related industries remain at the heart of the relationship and, as a result, China is now a well-established market for Saudi oil and gas.
In 2007, Saudi Arabia became China’s largest source of oil imports. Over the past year, China has also allowed Saudi Basic Industries Company (Sabic) to build petrochemicals complexes in the People’s Republic.
One of the main reasons the relationship has prospered is because of the mutual interest in developing trade above any other considerations. China has shown little interest in interfering in the notoriously volatile politics of the Middle East. For governments in the region irritated by foreign powers lecturing them on their shortcomings, even as those same powers happily consume their oil, this is welcome.
For those same reasons, trade between Riyadh and Beijing will continue to grow. For now, there seems little prospect of anything more significant, yet trade could prove a solid basis for more important links – something that could benefit Saudi Arabia if China becomes the economic superpower many predict in the years ahead.
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