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The Saudis beckon

Updated On: Apr 28, 2006

Chinese President Hu Jintao made a returned state visit to Saudi Arabia on 22 to 24 April 2006. 

Just weeks ago, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz had given full prestige to Chinese power by choosing China as his first stop of his first foreign tour after ascending the throne in January 2005.  This is the first time in the history of China-Arab relations that the two top leaders exchange visits in such a short period of time. 

In Riyadh this time to discuss continuous development of the relationships, making it the first time in the history of China-Arab relations that two top leaders exchange visits in such a short period of time. China wants to reach commonality in worldview with her Saudi counterparts. It wants to emphasize that both states pursue an independent foreign policy of peace.

The visit is strategic in nature with China looking at the Saudi Kingdom as its fulcrum of influence in the Middle East. President Hu said "China will make joint efforts with Saudi Arabia to speed up the negotiation process on a free trade agreement between China and the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC)". The GCC, established in 1981, consists of six Arab countries: OmanBahrainKuwaitQatarSaudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. China-GCC interaction has taken a boost as GCC Secretary-General Abdul-Rahman Al-Attiyah said the bloc encourages its member states to promote relations with China.  

Strategic partnerships and alliances are important. But more important than this is simply that China will need more energy. Saudi Arabia has the world’s top petroleum reserve and production. In 2005, China imported 22 million tons of crude oil from Saudi Arabia, or 17.5 percent of its total import, making Saudi Arabia China's largest energy supplier. Trade volume between the two nations topped $16 billion last year, with Saudi Arabia becoming China's largest trading partner inWest Asia and North Africa. The mutual aim is to reach US$40 billion trade within five years.  This also marked Saudi Arabia conscious efforts to Look East as investment climate in the West seem to be affected by the war against terror.

While China as the future superpower is consolidating its influence in the Middle East, another country that wants to be viewed as having international influence is also in the region pushing for an enhanced reputation. Indonesia, which has recently touted itself as having global influence through its status as the ‘most populous Muslim nation’ which is also democratic.   In a bid to win a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, it is also reaching out to the Middle East. Jakarta Post in reporting this trip once again reiterated Indonesia’s population as a factor for making it ‘ideal’ as a Middle East mediator.

President Yudhoyono is on state visits to five Arab countries -- Saudi ArabiaKuwaitQatar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan until 4 May 2006. He claims that he may have some solutions to the Iran nuclear issue and Israel-Palestinian impasse. Yudhoyono declares: "Indonesia can even become a mediator to persuade Iranto sit together with the U.S. and others to talk about the issue."  But Middle Eastern expert, Broto Wardoyo is more skeptical, speaking to the Jakarta Post: "The questions are: 'Do we have funds to do the job?', and 'do we have the nerve to get involved in the conflict?”.  With their own unresolved domestic issues involving separatist sentiments in Papua and Aceh, and the need to focus on economic development, talks of playing a mediator role in the Middle East may be just talks.

Sources:

Indonesia equipped to mediate Mideast conflicts: Analysts (Jakarta Post, 27 April 2006)

Overall boost of Sino-Saudi Arabian relations, Comment (People’s Daily, 24 April 2006)

China ready to help in peace efforts (People’s Daily, 24 April 2006)

Hu says China committed to strategic cooperation with Saudi Arabia (People’s Daily, 24 April 2006)

Chinese, Saudi heads of state meet on promoting bilateral ties (People’s Daily, 23 April 2006)

Chinese president meets leader of Gulf Cooperation Council (People’s Daily, 23 April 2006)