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Saudi Arabia and China: A New Friendship on the Horizon?

Updated: Jun 11, 2023

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on December 7, 2022. Saudi Press Agency/Reuters©

In 1971, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the People’s Republic of China was so strained that the Kingdom voted against the UN General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution admitting the Popular Republic of China to represent China in the UN (UNGA, 1971). Ideological differences and finding themselves on opposite sides of the Cold War did not encourage diplomatic closeness. And yet, on December 8, 2022, the world watched as PRC President Xi Jinping was welcomed in Riyadh with a grand ceremony including 21 cannon shots, a mounted honour guard escort to the royal palace, and fighter jets painting the sky with the colours of the Chinese flag (Lemaître, 2022). What changed during the five decades separating these two events?

The key moment to understanding this shift took place during the 1980s. At the time, Saudi Arabia was growing increasingly concerned about its neighbour and long-time rival, Iran. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution culminated into the establishment of a Shia Muslim theocracy, bringing ethnic, political and religious tensions back to the surface, since Saudi Arabia is a mostly Muslim country. In response to the Soviet missile arsenals showcased by both sides of the 1980 Iran-Iraq War, Saudi Arabia asked the US to sell them Pershing missiles to increase the country’s deterrence and defence capabilities. Israel strongly opposed the sale, as these missiles were meant to carry nuclear weapons (Lockheed Martin, 2012). Saudi reassurances on their intention to modify the missiles to serve conventional attack purposes were insufficient, and in the end, the request was denied.

However, in 1988 the American press revealed to the public that the Kingdom had purchased missiles back in 1985 from the Chinese, keeping the deal a secret from the US (Mann, 1988). The event caused an uproar in the region and heightened tensions with Washington, signalling the start of a new era for the Kingdom’s relations with Beijing. In 1990 the two countries, once so distant, announced the establishment of diplomatic relations. In 1999 President Jiang Zemin visited Riyadh. In January 2006, a newly crowned King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz visited Beijing. In April 2006, it was President Hu Jintao’s turn to fly to Saudi Arabia.

The two countries’ relationship is, first and foremost, of economic nature - the rock upon which their ongoing partnership is built. In 1990, the trade value between the two countries stood at $296 million (Al-Sudairi, 2012). By 2021 the sum has escalated to the staggering value of $87.3 billion (Reuters, 2022), with oil trade a considerable factor in strengthening the two countries' economic relations. All things considered, the match between Riyadh and Beijing is truly one made in heaven: the world’s first oil importer meets its first exporter. It is not only China’s immense demand for oil that is attractive to the Saudis, but also its attitude towards fossil fuels. A good way of describing Beijing’s stance on energy sources could be described as “pragmatic environmentalism”: while building a semi-monopoly on components for green energy infrastructures such as solar panels and wind turbines, China believes in the short and medium-term necessity of fossil fuels. It has been noted how, in so doing, Beijing presents itself as a much more reliable trading partner to Riyadh than the West (Rampini, 2022).

There are further aspects that make China an attractive counterpart to Saudi Arabia. In 2021, the visiting foreign minister Wang Yi told Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud that China “supports Saudi Arabia in safeguarding its sovereignty, national dignity, security and stability, and opposes interference in Saudi Arabia's internal affairs under any pretext” (Xinhua, 2021). Non-interference in internal affairs is a well-known pillar of Chinese foreign policy - and one particularly appreciated in Saudi Arabia.

The de facto ruler of the Kingdom is the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, son of the current King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The rise to power of MBS (as he is colloquially known) is one of intrigue and politics within the powerful and complex Saudi royal family. In 2017, 31-year-old MBS was seen in the West as the man who would modernise his country, with the media loudly reporting his progressive statements on the role of women. His triumphant tour of the US seemed to confirm this, with the prince dining at Rupert Murdoch’s house, receiving a grand welcome from President Trump, and meeting Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Oprah Winfrey (Arango, 2018).

However, the honeymoon period between MBS and the West was to be short-lived. On October 2, 2018, journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, never to be seen again. After weeks of strong international pressure, Saudi authorities eventually admitted that the journalist had died after a failed attempt to take him back to Saudi Arabia. The international reaction, particularly from the West, was nothing short of outrage: France condemned the murder “in the strongest terms”, German Chancellor Angela Merkel refused to accept the Saudi report, and US President Trump described the event as “unacceptable” (Al Jazeera, 2018). Since then, the relationship between the young prince and Western countries has been strained at best. Of course, pragmatism related to oil trade and interests in the Middle East have preserved the kingdom from complete isolation. Still, it is undeniable that the international image of MBS as a moderniser is in jeopardy to say the least.

However, if the West grows colder, the East, and specifically China, opens its arms wider. Two months later, on February 21, 2019, Xi Jinping warmly welcomed MBS and his delegation in Beijing. This visit was primarily the consequence of decades of trade, talks, and, most importantly, the 2016 Xi visit in which the two countries signed a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement - the highest diplomatic relation in the eyes of Beijing since the 1982 non-alliance policy. But the international climate helped bring the two countries even closer – the Chinese promise of non-interference in internal affairs had become even more appreciated by Riyadh.

One can wonder how China balances this relationship with the well-established friendly terms with Tehran, which is expected to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization by April 2023. The answer can be found in the policy of equivalency strenuously pursued by China in the Gulf (Marks, 2022). To provide an example, the 2016 comprehensive strategic partnership deal with Saudi Arabia was followed mere weeks later by a similar agreement signed with Iran. This pattern has been repeated regarding official visits and military drills. Up to this point, this show of neutrality has appeared to bear its fruits: while it is unlikely that either country is completely pleased with China’s neutral stance, none of them seem to let it affect its relationship with Beijing. This balancing act between Tehran and Riyadh has been skillfully navigated by China in 2023, as it successfully mediated between both regional powers, leading up to the resumption of their diplomatic relations, which had been frozen since 2016. (United States Institute of Peace, 2023).

In the eyes of Tehran, China - as the world’s second superpower and one of the few friendly countries left – is indeed allowed a certain margin of freedom. The power balance is, however, very different between Saudi Arabia and the US, which bears the question of how Washington views the flourishing Sino-Saudi liaison. In July of last year, when Joe Biden visited Riyadh, the media noted the cold welcome MBS granted him. In October, Saudi Arabia refused to comply with America’s demand that OPEC boost its oil production – which was, on the contrary, decreased– to help balance the consequences of Russia’s actions following the Ukraine war sanctions. These two events have sparked concern about the health of US-Saudi relations – and more doubts were raised after the grandiose welcome given to President Xi in December.

US - Saudi partnership was once based on a simple equation: one provided oil, the other arms. Today, Saudi Arabia still heavily depends on the US for its national security; as of 2022, it was the number one customer for American military sales (US Department of State, 2022). Equally vital is the role of the superior US navy, which by patrolling the Strait of Hormuz, allows Saudi oil to be shipped worldwide – the oil trade famously being the essence of the country’s economy. The Americans’ role as guarantor of security and stability in the region is therefore of primary importance to Riyadh. But what if the US were to reconsider its commitment to this area?

As it turns out, this scenario might not be too distant from the truth. At this point, the US plan to disengage from the Middle East and concentrate its resources on the heated Indo-Pacific area is hardly a secret. The hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, not too distant in time, led to the collapse of the Western-imposed order and the return to power of the Taliban, sending a strong signal. With the global energy market being revolutionised by renewable sources and technological innovation, and with China having firmly replaced Russia as the West’s main competitor on the world’s stage (the war in Ukraine notwithstanding), the Gulf is quickly becoming less of a priority to Washington, which means that Riyadh is on the market to diversify its partners, both economically and diplomatically.

The $30 billion worth of bilateral agreements and Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) signed by Saudi Arabia and China at the beginning of December must be read in this light. Among them, two agreements are particularly relevant. The first one is the harmonisation plan between the two leaders’ national grandiose projects, Vision 2030 – which aims to modernise and diversify the Saudi economy – and the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. The second one is an MoU signed with Huawei on cloud computing and the building of high-tech complexes, again linked to SV 2030. All while Xi Jinping advances the idea of trading oil and gas in yuan.

From a strategic perspective, China does not appear willing to take the US’ place as a guarantor of security in the turbulent Middle East region. However, it provides Saudi Arabia with missiles and drones and support for its nuclear program. Some have suggested that Beijing might soon desire military agreements with the Kingdom, maybe even a naval base in the Red Sea to pair with the one already set up in Djibouti (Rampini, 2022).

“We do not believe in polarisation or in choosing between sides,” said MBS after the December 8 meeting (El Dahan & El Yaakoubi, 2022). The US can therefore rest easy: Saudi Arabia will not take the Chinese side. But nor will it choose Washington. It is the “omni-aligning” policy pictured by scholar Michael Singh, a product of a multi-polar, nuanced geopolitical environment that needs to be navigated beyond a binary vision (Singh, 2022). In this new era of diplomatic relations, China offers Saudi Arabia a relationship devoid of interference in the country’s internal affairs, with the opportunity to focus on economic and strategic development through long-term oil trade contracts and billions in investments in Saudi Vision 2030 and the BRI.

Does this mean that Beijing is a better friend to Saudi Arabia than the US? As Saudi ambassador Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud said when asked this question in 2006: “Not necessarily a better friend, but a less complicated friend” (USA Today, 2006).

About the Author

Giulia Alessandra Foti has a bachelor’s degree in Music and a master’s degree in Law from the University of Trento. She spent a semester at Shanghai University and a year studying Chinese Language at Beijing Foreign Studies University. She has worked as a Research Assistant for the Covid-19 Litigation Project and is currently attending a Master course in Cyber Intelligence, Big Data and Security of Critical Infrastructures at the Italian Society for International Organization (SIOI).

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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