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    The Middle East Pivot To Asia: Update

    Published On: 29 March 2023

    Saudi-China Relations Deepen: The Implications For Global Trade, Business And Geopolitics


    As part of Asia House’s research on The Middle East Pivot to Asia, Freddie Neve, Senior Middle East Associate, Asia House, and Zhouchen Mao, Head of Research and Advisory, Asia House, examine the strengthening of Saudi-China relations over the last few months following high-profile visits to the Kingdom by Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee and Chinese President Xi Jinping.[1] The authors explore the significance of this closer relationship, its implications for global trade and geopolitics, and details of the US$50bln in new deals between China and Saudi Arabia.

    Key takeaways:

    • Recent visits to Saudi Arabia by Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee and Chinese President Xi Jinping will accelerate growth in both economic and political ties between Saudi Arabia and China.
    • Lee’s visit focussed on demonstrating Hong Kong’s dual credentials as a major capital market for the Kingdom’s various mega-projects and as a gateway for Saudi investment into mainland China.
    • During Xi’s visit, some 35 deals worth US$50bln were signed, cementing China’s position as Saudi Arabia’s top trading partner.
    • Investment deals signed during both visits highlighted the growing importance of non-oil sectors in Chinese-Saudi trade. Key areas of cooperation included technology, logistics, and renewables.
    • Chinese investment in Saudi Arabia may amplify China’s focus on the wider Middle East region. The China-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic ties is an example of this. The deal has the potential to change the Middle East’s power dynamics, where the US has for decades been the main mediator.
    • China-Saudi technology cooperation is growing. Saudi Arabia seeks China’s expertise to support Vision 2030’s digital transformation goals. But US-China tensions have the potential to impact Saudi-China cooperation in this field.



    Saudi-China commercial ties have accelerated rapidly in recent months. High-profile visits by Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee and Chinese President Xi Jinping to Saudi Arabia laid the ground for an acceleration in bilateral trade. This will have several implications for global trade and politics. 2021 saw Saudi-China trade pass an important milestone, with bilateral trade exceeding the value of Beijing’s trade with the US, UK, and Eurozone combined. Future trade growth is projected to outstrip trade growth with Saudi Arabia’s Western trading partners, in turn enhancing China’s relative importance to the Kingdom.

    Crucially, China’s growing commercial engagement in Saudi Arabia is enhancing Beijing’s political influence in the Kingdom and wider region. On 10 March, Saudi Arabia and Iran signed a China-brokered agreement to restore diplomatic ties, ending a seven-year dispute that erupted after the Saudi diplomatic mission in Tehran was vandalised by protesters following the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. China’s neutrality across the Middle East’s various political dividing lines, coupled with its extensive economic and commercial engagements in both Saudi Arabia and Iran, positioned Beijing well as mediator. The US would have struggled to broker a similar rapprochement, given its relations with Iran. So, the deal points towards an emerging shift in the Middle East’s power dynamics, where China is more willing to exert greater diplomatic and political influence in the region to secure its interests at Washington’s expense.

    This Asia House Research Briefing will provide a detailed analysis of recent developments in Saudi-China relations, the investment agreements signed, and the implications for future Saudi-China ties and the wider region following the high-profile Xi and Lee visits.


    Overview of Saudi-China relations

    Bilateral trade between China and Saudi Arabia reached US$81.7bln in 2021.[2] But recent visits to Saudi Arabia by Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee and Chinese President Xi Jinping have placed the rapidly developing economic and political ties between China and Saudi Arabia into even sharper focus. Xi’s visit alone saw 35 deals signed[3] – worth a total of US$50bln, according to Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Investment.[4] The visits have also magnified China’s commercial interests in Saudi Arabia, with additional deals signed between businesses in both countries since both leaders’ visits. Asia House was on the ground in Riyadh during Xi’s visit and met various Saudi and Chinese businesses forging closer Saudi-China ties.

    Figure 1: Saudi Arabia’s PIF Tower turns red for Xi Jinping’s state visit; Source: author’s own photograph

    Saudi Arabia remains an important oil supplier to China, with China investing in Saudi oil infrastructure and ports used to transport oil. Construction has also long been an important sector. In particular, Chinese companies have offered expertise in expansive greenfield construction, where growing demand has come from the Kingdom’s various mega-projects, urban construction projects, and urban renewal projects inaugurated under Vision 2030. Saudi Arabia has been able to capitalise on Chinese investments under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), becoming the second-largest recipient of BRI funding in 2022 (after Hungary), drawing in US$5.6bln, or around eight percent of China’s total BRI spending.[5]

    While oil still makes up around half of Saudi-China bilateral trade[6], the investment deals signed during both the Lee and Xi visits covered a wide range of sectors, including energy, hydrogen, solar, technology, cloud computing, transport, logistics, healthcare, housing, and construction.[7] Growth in Saudi-China trade in non-oil sectors has been encouraged by Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 programme, which has focused large investments on economic diversification, as well as the implementation of economic and social reforms to attract greater foreign investment into the Kingdom. This has not only attracted Chinese companies to invest in new growth sectors, but also to establish new headquarters in the Kingdom. This trend has been reinforced by Saudi Arabia’s Regional HQ Programme, which offers incentives to companies establishing a physical presence in the Kingdom. For Saudi Arabia, Chinese expertise and experience in scaling up technologies at pace can help fulfil capacity gaps in delivering Vision 2030. Chinese-Saudi cooperation in technology is moving at pace, with Chinese tech companies such as Huawei and Alibaba winning contracts to assist the Kingdom’s digital transformation.[8]

    Chinese companies often enter the Saudi market through a partnership with a Saudi government entity or local family conglomerate. Some 75 percent of the deals signed during Xi’s December 2022 visit were with family-owned conglomerates, including nearly US$8.4bln worth of contracts with Ajlan & Bros Holding.[9] This research briefing explores these deals in greater depth later. Ajlan & Bros is one of the first Saudi private companies to establish a business in China and the deputy chairman of the company also serves as president of the Saudi-Chinese Business Council.

    While Saudi-Chinese relations are primarily commercial, China has also emerged as a significant arms provider to Saudi Arabia. For instance, US$4bln worth of Chinese weapons were purchased by Saudi Arabia in 2022 at the Zhuhai Air Show.[10] Arms trade between the two countries date back to the 1980s, but US officials are increasingly concerned about growing Saudi-China cooperation in the sector, as well as in sensitive technologies such as 5G, telecommunications, and nuclear energy.

    Saudi Arabia still regards the US as its primary defence and security partner, and China prefers to maintain neutrality across the Middle East’s various political dividing lines (allowing, for example, Beijing to engage in strategic and military cooperation with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s primary adversary). But recent Saudi arms purchases have focussed on procuring equipment that it cannot buy from the US, such as drones. Shortly after taking office, US President Joe Biden’s administration announced it would end the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia because of the latter’s role in the Yemen civil war. The Biden administration continues to sell defensive weapons (such as the Patriot missile defence system) to the Kingdom, but the policy decision on offensive arms will have pushed the Kingdom to explore alternative suppliers. There were, however, no public announcements regarding arms sales during Xi’s visit.[11]


    John Lee’s Visit to Saudi Arabia

    In February 2023, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee visited Saudi Arabia and the UAE to promote Hong Kong’s credentials as a major capital market for the Kingdom’s various mega-projects, and as a gateway for Saudi investment to reach mainland China. Lee’s visit to the Kingdom, his first overseas trip in 2023, included meetings with Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Investment Khalid Al Falih and Minister of Communications and Information Technology Abdullah Alswaha. Six commercial agreements were signed, largely relating to the encouragement of greater capital flows between Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong, with the two sides announcing they would begin negotiating a Hong Kong-Saudi Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement to strengthen investor confidence and increase bilateral investment.

    Separately, Saudi Arabia’s main stock exchange, the Tadawul, signed an agreement with Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (HKEX) to increase cooperation towards cross-border listings. This comes as Saudi Arabia is introducing new regulations to expand its capital markets. Building deeper relations with international stock exchanges to encourage cross-border listings could be one pathway for Saudi Arabia to grow its capital markets. Indeed, according to The South China Morning Post, the aim of Lee’s meeting with the President and CEO of Saudi Aramco Amin Nasser, was to convince Aramco to consider a secondary listing in Hong Kong.[12]

    Lee’s visit also focussed on encouraging investment into Hong Kong following the recent removal of strict COVID-19 restrictions. Lee met Turqi Alnowaiser, deputy governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and head of the Sovereign Wealth Fund’s International Investments Division. PIF, which has estimated assets of US$620bln, has increased its focus on Asian markets over recent years, for example, opening a new subsidiary in Hong Kong in February 2022 to be closer to Chinese markets.

    Lee’s visit also aimed to illustrate Hong Kong’s strengths in technology and logistics and to position the city as a key partner in the delivery of Saudi Arabia’s economic diversification ambitions. Notable deals during Lee’s visit included:

    • A deal between the King Abdullah Financial District (KAFD) and Hong Kong’s SenseTime to cooperate in the development of smart cities. SenseTime also signed a Letter of Intent with Saudi event management firm Sela.[13]
    • A deal between Nesma Holding and Hong Kong’s Templewater to deliver zero-emission commercial fleet vehicles in the Middle East.[14]
    • A deal between Hong Kong ports group Hutchison and King Salman Energy Park (SPARK), an Aramco-owned industrial zone, to build on previous cooperation. The two entities have already signed a Joint Venture (JV) to manage and operate an inland dry port and bonded logistics zone in SPARK.[15]

    With Hong Kong’s growing integration with mainland China, Lee’s visit may help further boost Saudi-China ties, with the city acting as a financial services connector between Saudi Arabia and China. Lee announced that the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) will lead a senior financial delegation to the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, later in 2023.[16]


    Xi Jinping’s visit: the main deals, outcomes, and implications

    Lee’s visit came only a few months after a state visit to Saudi Arabia by Chinese President Xi Jinping, shortly after Xi secured a third term as the Chinese Communist Party’s general secretary. Beijing and Riyadh signed a strategic partnership agreement, elevating the status of the relationship and committing to high-level visits every two years, while emphasising the harmonies between Vision 2030 and BRI. The Chinese delegation also engaged in two regional summits in Riyadh during the visit, one focused on the Gulf states and the other on the wider Arab World, highlighting China’s perceptions of Saudi Arabia as the key interlocutor within these economic and political blocs. Beyond diplomacy and high-level meetings, a plethora of deals and Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) were signed to drive forward the next phase of growth in Saudi-China relations.


    Saudi-China technology cooperation is key to future bilateral relations

    Asia House was present during the signing ceremony between Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Investment, Riyadh-based investment institution eWTP Arabia Capital, and Chinese gaming firm ONEMT. The deal will see ONEMT relocate its regional headquarters to Saudi Arabia and complete its initial public offering (IPO) on Saudi Arabia’s Tadawul stock exchange. In return for Saudi government support, investment, and tax incentives, ONEMT will build game development studios and research centres, and also recruit and train local Saudi talent.[17]

    The deal closely aligns with Vision 2030 as Saudi Arabia makes large investments in its digital economy and the gaming sector to provide entertainment for its young population and create additional employment opportunities in the private sector. The relocation of ONEMT could eventually lead to the creation of gaming content tailored to the domestic Saudi market. ONEMT’s commitment to list on the Tadawul also supports the Kingdom’s growth strategy for its capital markets. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has ambitions to turn the Tadawul into one of the world’s top three stock exchanges.[18]

    Figure 2: Asia House at the signing ceremony of the ONEMT deal; Source: picture provided by eWTP Arabia

    eWTP Arabia is a key vehicle driving Saudi-China commercial cooperation. It is the first Chinese asset manager to receive investment from sovereign wealth fund PIF, receiving US$300m.[19] eWTP assists Chinese technology companies to expand into Saudi Arabia via equity investment. The firm negotiates tax relief and secures incentives from the Saudi government on behalf of its portfolio companies. Over the last few years, eWTP Arabia has assisted Alibaba Cloud, logistics firm J&T Express, and V-Broker, a subsidiary of social media platform, Sina Weibo, with their expansion into Saudi Arabia.

    Saudi Arabia wants Chinese expertise in scaling up technologies at pace, while Chinese companies will benefit from the Saudi government’s assistance navigating the local market and wider investments in technological adoption. Xi’s visit also saw Chinese telecommunications company Huawei sign a deal with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) to support Vision 2030’s digital transformation goals. Huawei will build super-fast broadband infrastructure in the Kingdom, assist its uptake of cloud technology, and launch a scholarship training programme for Saudi university students that includes training trips to Huawei’s headquarters.[20]

    Huawei, however, has been targeted by US sanctions, and Gulf states have previously faced US pressure for allowing Huawei access to telecommunications networks and in particular deploying 5G technology across the Gulf. US-China tensions do have the potential to impact Saudi-China cooperation, as we outline later in this research briefing.


    Saudi ambitions to become a global trade hub is aided by Chinese investment and expertise

    As part of Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia is expanding and modernising its domestic manufacturing industry and infrastructure, such as roads and ports. This and the Kingdom’s simultaneous adoption of digital technologies and e-commerce has fuelled expansion in its logistics industry, in turn attracting Chinese firms to the Saudi market. One recent example is J&T Express, a leading Chinese logistics company founded in Indonesia, which entered into Saudi Arabia at the start of 2022.[21] Within a year, J&T Express established seven warehousing and distribution centres in the Kingdom and took on 1,300 vehicles and 2,000 staff. It will also build the Middle East’s largest smart logistics industrial park over the next 10 years.

    Xi’s visit saw several deals to expand the Kingdom’s manufacturing and logistics industry. For example, Shenzhen-headquartered Linklogis signed a JV with Ajlan & Bros to establish the Kingdom’s first supply chain finance technology solution provider. It will help Saudi SMEs gain access to finance.[22] Ajlan & Bros also signed a strategic cooperation agreement with China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) to jointly develop projects worth US$1.3bln in Sri Lanka, including Port City Colombo and the Colombo International Financial Centre.[23] This is a rare example of Chinese commercial cooperation with a third-party, demonstrating high levels of trust between China and Saudi Arabia.


    Xi’s visit has deepened Saudi-China sustainability cooperation

    There are several natural synergies between Saudi Arabia and China regarding the development and deployment of sustainable technologies:

    • China is the world’s largest producer of solar panels, while Saudi Arabia produces the world’s cheapest solar power.
    • China is the world’s largest producer of rare-earth metals and minerals that are critical for the next generation of batteries and electrification, while the Kingdom is making significant investments in developing its own mining sector.
    • China is the world’s largest exporter of Electric Vehicles (EVs), whereas Saudi Arabia is trying to build its own domestic sector through sovereign investments in EV producers (such as US-based Lucid group) and via the creation of its own new EV company Ceer.
    • Saudi Arabia wants to become a key hub for producing blue and green hydrogen. These fuels release zero CO2 when burned, meaning once produced at scale they can assist with China’s decarbonisation and target to become net-zero by 2060.

    These synergies have led to substantial cooperation over previous years between the two countries, which has now been further strengthened by Xi’s visit. Nine deals were signed with Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power, including a US$1.5bln agreement with Power China.[24] To date, Chinese organisations have contributed to 47 projects across 12 countries in ACWA Power’s portfolio, with total investment reaching US$43bln.[25] ACWA Power also signed an MoU with solar firm Jinko Power to provide 4GW worth of solar modules.[26] In a separate deal, Chinese EV start-up Enovate announced it will build a US$500m plant in Saudi Arabia with capacity to produce 100,000 EVs a year.[27] This will be built with Saudi investment partner Sumou.

    View this table in greater detail here.


    China’s role in Saudi-Iran rapprochement: a new regional power balance?

    On 10 March, three months after Xi’s visit to Riyadh, China brokered an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic ties following a seven-year dispute. Beyond the reopening of embassies, the deal will also see both sides uphold an April 2022 ceasefire in Yemen. Iran will cease arming the Houthis and push the latter to end missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia; Saudi Arabia will end support for Iran International – a Persian language news channel based in Washington D.C. that is critical of the Iranian government.[28]

    The Saudi-Iran rapprochement is evidence of China’s greater willingness to engage and shape the region’s politics amid growing investments in the region. China’s neutrality across the Middle East’s various political dividing lines, coupled with its extensive economic and commercial engagements with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, positioned it well as a mediator. For instance, China has provided economic and military support to Iran as it faces US sanctions, giving China sway over Tehran. In March 2021, the China-Iran Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement was signed, whereby China pledged to invest US$400bln over 25 years. Some US$280bln of this will be spent developing Iran’s oil and gas industry. In return, China will be allowed to buy Iranian oil and gas in Yuan at a discount.

    In contrast, the US would not have been accepted as a mediator. Iran views the US as an adversary, whereas Saudi Arabia has been critical of past US policy on Iran, with the Kingdom viewing the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal as too weak. While Saudi-Iran rapprochement aligns with US interests, China’s role in brokering detente could be viewed in Washington through the prism of great power competition in the region. The Iran-Saudi rapprochement may encourage China to engage more in the region’s politics. China’s strength as a diplomatic broker will now be tested by its ability to enforce the implementation the Saudi-Iran deal. This will not be simple. Both countries have different interests and allegiances across the region, including in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, meaning there are several potential spoilers. But successful rapprochement could open the door for greater Gulf-Iran cooperation. For example, Bahrain and Egypt could now follow Saudi Arabia in normalising ties with Iran.[29] The Kingdom has also said it will invest in Iran’s economy if rapprochement goes to plan. This would reduce Iran’s economic isolation to the detriment of the US sanctions regime against Iran.

    As Chinese commercial and political engagement in the region grows, US influence is likely to wane. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with the Biden administration’s frosty relations with the Kingdom, have led to perceptions in the Gulf that the US is becoming a more distant and less-engaged partner. On 29 March, in a further dent to US leadership in the region, Saudi Arabia’s cabinet approved a memorandum on the Kingdom becoming a dialogue partner in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) – a political and security union of countries spanning Eurasia, including China, Russia, India, and most central Asian states.[30] This is the first step towards Saudi Arabia becoming a full member of the organisation and will involve the Kingdom within strategic discussions on regional cooperation influenced by China. Iran signed documents to become a permanent member of the SCO last year.[31] Xi’s visit to the Kingdom and subsequent Iran-Saudi rapprochement could set in motion a new era of Chinese influence in the Middle East.


    How will deeper China-Saudi ties impact US-Saudi ties?

    Politically, Xi’s visit underscored China’s growing influence in Saudi Arabia to the detriment of US policy. Indeed, international media contrasted Xi’s ‘red carpet’ treatment with Biden’s low-key visit to Saudi Arabia in July 2022. The US, of course, remains an important economic and security partner for Saudi Arabia, and a significant destination for both sovereign and private investment. However, there is growing disquiet amongst Gulf policymakers that Washington is deprioritising the Middle East and committing fewer resources to the region’s security. Xi’s visit and the significant investment deals announced were aimed, at least in part, at demonstrating that Beijing can be a more reliable partner to the Kingdom and the region.

    China hopes its expanding economic relations with Saudi Arabia will advance to the point that the Kingdom begins to accept payment for oil in Yuan – a policy that China would work towards as Xi indicated during the China-Arab League summit in Riyadh.[32] There are signs of the Yuan gaining greater influence. Russia, in the face of Western sanctions, is increasingly conducting trade in Chinese currency. In the Middle East, Egypt announced in 2022 that it would issue between US$1.5bln and US$2bln worth of Yuan-denominated bonds[33] and in February 2023, Iraq’s Central Bank announced it would allow trade to be settled in Yuan.[34] The Yuan is now the world’s fifth-largest currency for global payments, accounting for 2.37 per cent of payments in November 2022.[35] While this trails the US Dollar, which accounts for around 40 per cent of total payments, the Yuan’s increased internationalisation may encourage the Gulf states to consider trade in Yuan to build up their reserves. But there are some reasons why Saudi Arabia may not wish to trade its oil in Yuan. The Chinese currency is less stable than the Dollar and replacing it with Yuan could undermine Saudi Arabia’s fiscal outlook, its ability to deploy capital abroad, and weaken its US Dollar peg.

    US-China tensions may encourage greater economic competition in Saudi Arabia, particularly in technology. Biden’s visit, for example, saw several deals signed aimed at generating Saudi goodwill. Agreements included the extension of US business and tourism visas for Saudi nationals from five to 10 years, a deal relating to the sale of Boeing and Raytheon defence equipment, and a deal with IBM to train 100,000 young Saudis over the next five years. Whilst Saudi Arabia could benefit from the US and China competing for economic influence in the Kingdom, further deterioration in US-China relations could make it difficult for Riyadh to maintain growing relationships with both countries.

    Saudi Arabia has stated that it wants to maintain good relations with both the US and China. Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan went as far as saying during Xi’s visit: “We do not believe in polarisation or in choosing between sides”.[36] But navigating US-China tensions to extract benefits from both sides will be a balancing act for Saudi Arabia, as it is for many countries who have productive relations with both powers.


    Looking forward: the future of Saudi-China relations

    Deepening economic and political ties between Saudi Arabia and China are a key geopolitical trend to monitor and will have a profound impact on global trade. Trade and investment between China and Saudi Arabia will be boosted by China’s removal of COVID-19 restrictions that will not only lift Chinese demand for hydrocarbons, but also contribute to China’s economic growth and the amount of capital it can deploy. Furthermore, trade and investment growth are likely to translate into more bilateral political exchanges to protect and grow these existing investments. Saudi Arabia may soon underline its commitment to China by conducting a reciprocal, high-level visit of its own.

    Close attention will need to be paid to the implementation of the deals announced during Xi’s visit, since projects failing or stalling could undermine business confidence between the two. But the impact of Xi’s visit will also go beyond the deals: it will be a signal to both Chinese and Saudi firms to increase their role in each other’s markets. In fact, this has already led to greater Chinese and Saudi dealmaking as these recent examples demonstrate:

    • During Saudi Arabia’s Future Minerals Forum in January 2023, the Red Sea Industrial Aluminium Company (RSA) – a subsidiary of China’s largest private manufacturer of aluminium alloys – agreed to develop Saudi Arabia’s mining industry through technology and knowledge exchanges. RSA plans to invest around US$10bln to build an aluminium manufacturing factory in the Kingdom, creating around 5,500 jobs.[37]
    • In January 2023, Shenzhen Capital Group, began a US$1bln private equity fund focused on Saudi Arabia.[38]
    • In February 2023, China International Capital Corporation (CICC) signed an MoU with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Investment to strengthen bilateral capital and investment cooperation.[39]
    • In February 2023, the Saudi-China Entrepreneur Association, was formally launched to promote engagement between business leaders in the two countries. It will be run by Jerry Li, a founder and manging partner of eWTP Arabia.[40]
    • In February 2023, PIF bought a US$265m stake in Chinese e-sports company VSPO, becoming the firm’s single largest equity holder.[41]
    • In March 2023, Aramco’s CEO Amin Nasser visited China where a flurry of deals were announced. Aramco acquired a 10 per cent stake in Rongsheng Petrochemical Company for US$3.6bln. Under the deal’s terms, Aramco will provide 480,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude to Rongsheng.[42] Saudi Arabia also announced it would begin construction on a US$10bln integrated refinery and petrochemical complex in Panjin City. Aramco will supply up to 210,000 bpd once the project is fully operational in 2026. This deal was first announced in 2019.

    More broadly, increased Chinese investment in Saudi Arabia will also enhance China’s focus on the wider Middle East region, which may encourage investment into neighbouring Gulf states, many of whom have similar economic diversification strategies. But crucially, as China’s commercial interests in the region increase, its engagement with the region’s politics will also increase, as evidenced by recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This could be the beginning of a shift in the region’s external relations – a shift that sees US influence diminished and the region’s power brokers increasingly looking towards Beijing for support.


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    [1] The authors are grateful to Yida Xiao for contributing research for this article.

    [2] Source: https://asiahouse.org/research_posts/the-middle-east-pivot-to-asia-2022/

    [3] Many media outlets reported that 34 deals were signed during Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia. However, an additional agreement between Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Investment, Riyadh-based eWTP Arabia Capital, and Chinese gaming firm ONEMT on the night of 8 December, became the 35th deal signed.

    [4] Source: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-12-11/saudi-arabia-says-50-billion-investments-agreed-at-china-summit

    [5] Source: https://greenfdc.org/china-belt-and-road-initiative-bri-investment-report-2022/

    [6] Source: https://www.reuters.com/world/saudi-china-energy-trade-investment-ties-2022-12-06/

    [7] Source: https://www.spa.gov.sa/viewfullstory.php?lang=en&newsid=2407555

    [8] Source: https://asiahouse.org/research_posts/the-middle-east-pivot-to-asia-2022/

    [9] Source: https://www.chinadailyhk.com/article/304396

    [10] Source: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3202245/why-saudi-arabia-looking-china-buy-weapons-after-years-arms-deals-us

    [11] Source: https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/12/us-watches-china-and-saudi-arabia-shy-away-defense-deals-during-xis-visit

    [12] Source: https://english.alarabiya.net/business/economy/2023/02/05/Hong-Kong-s-Lee-in-Saudi-Arabia-aims-to-encourage-Aramco-to-list-in-city

    [13] Source: https://www.sensetime.com/en/news-detail/51165501?categoryId=1072

    [14] Source: https://www.templewater.com/news/nesma-signs-a-memorandum-of-understanding-with-templewater-to-accelerate-decarbonization-and-transform-commercial-fleets-in-the-mena-region-into-zero-emission-vehicles

    [15] Source: https://energydigital.com/oil-and-gas/king-salman-energy-park-and-hutchison-ports-launch-ksa-jv

    [16] Source: https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202302/08/WS63e2f334a31057c47ebad83d.html

    [17] Source: https://www.ltjianhe.com/details_29.html

    [18] Source: https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/saudi-exchange-launches-market-making-framework-boost-liquidity-2022-12-04/

    [19] Source: https://www.cbinsights.com/investor/ewtp-capital

    [20] Source: https://www.zawya.com/en/press-release/government-news/saudis-ministry-of-communications-and-information-technology-inks-mou-with-huawei-xe89wmqi

    [21] Source: https://www.jtexpress.sg/insights/pr-jt-express-launches-in-the-middle-east

    [22] Source: https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2023/03/01/2618297/0/en/Ajlan-Bros-Holding-Visits-Linklogis-Jointly-Promoting-the-Development-of-Supply-Chain-Finance-in-Saudi-Arabia.html

    [23] Source: https://economynext.com/saudi-arabias-ajlan-to-join-chinas-chec-to-invest-in-sri-lanka-port-city-106992/

    [24] Source: https://english.alarabiya.net/News/saudi-arabia/2022/12/09/Saudi-Arabia-does-not-believe-in-choosing-between-one-partner-and-another-FM

    [25] Source: https://www.acwapower.com/news/acwa-power-signs-strategic-agreements-with-nine-chinese-entities/

    [26] Source: https://www.jinkosolar.com/site/newsdetail/1388

    [27] Source: https://www.scmp.com/business/banking-finance/article/3203039/chinese-ev-start-enovate-build-plant-saudi-arabia-president-xis-visit-riyadh-begins-pay

    [28] Source: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/china/iran-saudi-arabia-middle-east-relations

    [29] The UAE and Kuwait normalised ties with Iran in 2022. Qatar restored ties with Iran during the Gulf dispute in 2017.

    [30] Source: https://www.reuters.com/world/riyadh-joins-shanghai-cooperation-organization-ties-with-beijing-grow-2023-03-29/

    [31] Source: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/9/15/iran-signs-memorandum-join-shanghai-cooperation-organisation

    [32] Source: https://thechinaproject.com/2022/12/09/in-saudi-arabia-xi-jinping-tells-gulf-states-he-wants-to-pay-for-oil-in-yuan/

    [33] Source: https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/08/egypt-issue-bonds-chinas-currency-yuan

    [34] Source: https://www.reuters.com/business/iraq-allow-trade-with-china-yuan-state-media-2023-02-22/

    [35] Source: https://viewpoint.bnpparibas-am.com/renminbi-internationalisation-the-petro-yuan-and-the-role-of-gold/

    [36] Source: https://english.alarabiya.net/News/saudi-arabia/2022/12/09/Saudi-Arabia-does-not-believe-in-choosing-between-one-partner-and-another-FM

    [37] Source: https://english.aawsat.com/home/article/4095991/jubail-yanbu-sign-114-billion-worth-investment-agreements-mining

    [38] Source: https://news.pedaily.cn/202301/506584.shtml

    [39] Source: https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/sbJB4y8BbZ0MmKnqArdwtg

    [40] Source: https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202302/07/WS63e237b2a31057c47ebad725.html

    [41] Source: https://www.caixinglobal.com/2023-03-13/startups-fund-managers-rush-to-tap-oil-money-as-china-bolsters-middle-east-ties-102007738.html

    [42] Source: https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/saudi-aramco-open-new-china-refinery-petchem-complex-2026-2023-03-26/