DUBAI – Chinese leader Xi Jinping vowed on Friday to import more oil and natural gas from energy-rich Gulf Arab states while not interfering in their affairs, likely seeking to cast Beijing in a more favorable light than Washington as America's attention in the region wanes.
Xi also urged the Arab countries to conduct energy sales in the Chinese yuan, potentially divorcing the U.S. dollar from transactions in a region where the United States still stations thousands of troops across a network of local bases as a hedge against Iran.
China's hands-off approach could appeal to leaders such as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who stands ready to rule the oil-rich kingdom for possibly decades, even after facing widespread international criticism over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the still-raging war in Yemen.
During Xi's visit to Saudi Arabia this week, the prince himself welcomed him to a meeting of the clubby Gulf Cooperation Council, and later to a wider summit of Mideast leaders.
“Standing at the crossroads of history, we must renew the tradition of friendship between China and the GCC,” Xi said.
Xi’s visit comes as China relies on the Gulf Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, for billions of dollars in crude oil imports to power his country’s economy as it tries to slowly ease out of its strict anti-coronavirus policy. Xi faced protests at home just before his arrival in Riyadh that represent the most-serious challenge to his rule after being awarded a third five-year term as the Communist party leader.
“The kingdom believes that hydrocarbon energy sources will remain an important resource to meet the needs of the world for the coming decades,” Prince Mohammed said.
Brent crude traded Friday around $76 a barrel — down from highs of $122 in June. Higher prices could see the prince’s dreams of a $500 billion futuristic city of Neom on the Red Sea to overhaul the Saudi economy come true. But rising costs at the pump months earlier further alienated the administration of President Joe Biden from Riyadh — something the prince likely kept in mind during Xi's visit.
Xi praised the GCC countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — as they “actively sought political solutions to regional hotspots” and invited their astronauts to China's new Tiangong space station.
Xi also said China plans to build a joint China-GCC Nuclear Security Demonstration Center that will train 300 personnel on nuclear safety and technology. Already, the UAE has the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant, built with South Korea under a strict agreement that it will not enrich uranium — a possible pathway to a nuclear weapon.
But perhaps most importantly for the Gulf states, Xi stressed his nation will keep being a major buyer of their oil.
“China will continue to import a large amount of crude oil from the GCC countries, expand imports of liquefied natural gas, strengthen the engineering services in oil and gas upstream development and the cooperation in storage, transportation and refining,” Xi said.
He also called on the GCC to use yuan to settle transactions.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict came up as Xi spoke with the Arab leaders, especially Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Xi said China remains committed to an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 boundaries of Israel.
“The Palestine issue is vital to the peace and stability in the Middle East,” Xi said. “The historical injustice suffered by the Palestinian people cannot continue indefinitely. The legitimate national interests cannot be traded. The demand for an independent state cannot be vetoed.”
Xi also called for nations to “strengthen exchanges among civilizations.”
“We need to jointly oppose Islamophobia, carry out cooperation in deradicalization, and oppose linking terrorism with specific ethnic groups and specific religions,” he said.
However, Xi made no mention his nation's harsh policies toward Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. More than a million have been sent to detention centers, forced to denounce Islam and swear fealty to Xi and the party. Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest sites in Islam, also has provided political cover to China amid the crackdown.
Xi also did not mention Iran, a rival repeatedly brought up by Prince Mohammed in his remarks. Iran is currently enriching uranium at its closest-ever levels to weapons-grade material — even as it faces nationwide protests challenging its theocratic government. Also, Tehran backs regional militias, including Yemen's Houthi rebels with whom Saudi Arabia is fighting a war.
Qatar's ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, whose country has largely restored ties to its Arab neighbors after a yearslong boycott, was also at the summit. Prince Mohammed made a point in his opening remarks, aired on state television, to applaud Qatar for its hosting of the World Cup. He also could be seen warmly greeting Sheikh Tamim before the meeting, something unthinkable only two years earlier, amid the boycott.
Gulf Arab nations want to maintain close relations with China even as U.S. officials believe they face a growing threat from China in Asia, and also Russia, which is waging a monthslong war on Ukraine.
During Xi's visit, Saudi officials said deals were signed between Riyadh and Beijing, including some involving the Chinese technology company Huawei on cloud-computing, data centers and other high-tech ventures. The U.S. has already has warned its Gulf Arab allies about working with Huawei over spying concerns.
In China, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported that Xi and King Salman agreed to hold meetings between the two countries’ leaders every two years.
On Friday, Xi held one-on-one meetings with Tunisian President Kais Saied, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani and Sheikh Tamim of Qatar.
Associated Press video producer Olivia Zhang in Beijing contributed to this report.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.