RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — China’s leader, Xi Jinping, will travel to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday for a flurry of summit meetings bringing together heads of state from across the Middle East, a region where longtime American allies are growing increasingly close to China.
Mr. Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia is aimed at deepening China’s decades-old ties with the Gulf region, which started narrowly as a bid to secure oil, and have since developed into a complex relationship involving arms sales, technology transfers and infrastructure projects.
“When countries in the Gulf think of their future, they see China as their partner,” said Gedaliah Afterman, head of the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy and International Relations at Reichman University in Israel.
The economic interests shared by the two countries are clear: China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, while Saudi Arabia is one of China’s largest suppliers of oil. Chinese companies are deeply enmeshed in the kingdom, building megaprojects, setting up 5G infrastructure and developing military drones.
The two governments have also found common cause as authoritarian states willing to overlook each other’s human rights abuses. Both bristle at the idea of outsiders interfering in their domestic affairs.
During the three-day visit, the Chinese president will attend Saudi-China, Gulf-China and Arab-China summit meetings, the Saudi state news agency reported on Tuesday. More than 30 heads of states and leaders of international organizations plan to attend, the report said, adding that Saudi Arabia and China would sign a “strategic partnership.”
The Chinese leader and Chinese companies are expected to seal a number of contracts with the Saudi government and other Gulf States, sending a message that Beijing’s clout in the region is growing at a time when Washington has pulled away from the Middle East to devote more attention to Asia.
The grand state visit will inevitably draw comparisons to Donald J. Trump’s arrival in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, for his first trip abroad as president in 2017. Courted aggressively by Saudi officials, he was greeted by streets decorated with American flags and an enormous image of his face projected on the side of a building.
Saudi Arabia has been a close American ally for more than half a century, and the United States remains the oil-rich kingdom’s main security guarantor, selling it the bulk of its weaponry and maintaining several military facilities in the region. But the Saudi rulers have long sought to strengthen other alliances to prepare for what they see as an emerging multipolar world, with China as a key superpower.
U.S.-Saudi ties, meanwhile, have been especially fractious over the past few years, hitting one low after another. On the campaign trail, President Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and said its current government had “little social redeeming value.”
After assuming office, his administration declared a “recalibration” of the relationship and pressed the kingdom over the 2018 murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi — a Saudi citizen and U.S. resident at the time — by Saudi agents in Istanbul.
That approach has caused irritation in the power corridors of the kingdom, where 37-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is both the prime minister and de facto ruler, sees himself as an ascendant global leader and views his country as a regional powerhouse that is too important to slight.
“Xi clearly wants to make a statement at a moment at which the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is strained,” said James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“It’s a good moment to replant the flag, if you wish. And I think it’s a good moment for the Gulf States to say, ‘Hey, we have other options. Washington, you’re not the only ones out there.’”
In July, Mr. Biden traveled to Saudi Arabia for his own state visit, partly to repair the strained relationship. The trip was a decidedly understated affair, which U.S. officials say was at Mr. Biden’s request; he greeted Prince Mohammed with a fist bump.
During a summit with Gulf and other Arab leaders in the coastal city of Jeddah, he sought to reassure American allies that the United States was not abandoning the region.
“We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran,” Mr. Biden said.
Just days after Mr. Biden departed, China’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia wrote a thinly veiled opinion article in a leading Saudi newspaper, Asharq al-Awsat, implying that Western powers had treated Saudi Arabia with “arrogance” and contrasting that with what he characterized as China’s respect for its Arab partners.
“We advise some to think about their own problems instead of envying the success of others,” wrote the ambassador, Chen Weiqing.
Despite their economic ties to the Middle East, Chinese officials appear relatively uninterested in taking on the type of strategic defense role that the United States has played in the region.
It would be “fanciful” to think that Saudi Arabia could replace the United States with China today, said Mohammed Alyahya, a Saudi fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Still, China’s role is undeniably growing, prompting countries to restructure their relationships, he said.
“When they see America’s strategic power waning, for political reasons or for reasons of the world views of certain U.S. politicians, that is a frustrating thing for Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Alyahya said.
“But I think those policymakers would also be foolish not to take U.S. threats of pivoting away from the region and recalibrating relations with the region at face value — and start thinking soberly about what a post-United States Middle East, or world order, looks like.”
How Saudi Arabia and its neighbors imagine that world order, and China’s place in it, will become clearer over the next few days. Saudi Arabia’s state news agency said tens of billions of dollars in deals were expected to be signed on the sidelines of the summits.
Officials in Washington will watch closely to see whether any of them touch on more sensitive sectors, such as defense or nuclear power.
“Across some threshold, it becomes more difficult to work with us if they’re too deeply engaged in terms of military infrastructure and military equipment with China,” Colin Kahl, U.S. under secretary of defense for policy, told journalists during a briefing in Bahrain last month. “The more connected their military and intelligence systems get with Beijing, the more of a direct challenge that is to our forces here in the region.”
Still, he added, “because the geopolitical landscape is changing, I understand the mentality of hedging — or making sure you can cover all your bets.”
Vivian Nereim reported from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and David Pierson from Singapore.