Chinese President Xi Jinping is due to meet a swathe of Arab leaders on Friday

Riyadh (AFP) - Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet Arab leaders in the Saudi capital on Friday for summits he has described as “milestone events” at a time of economic uncertainty and geopolitical realignment.

The meetings come on the third and final day of Xi’s first visit to Saudi Arabia since 2016 and only his third overseas trip since the coronavirus pandemic began.

On Thursday, he met with King Salman and Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, announcing deals on everything from hydrogen energy to housing, although few details were released.

Friday’s agenda was expected to include a summit with the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council as well as a broader China-Arab summit.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Tunisian President Kais Saied were among the heads of state who arrived on Thursday, with leaders from Qatar, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere also planning to attend.

“China looks forward to working with Saudi Arabia and Arab countries to make the two summits milestone events in the history of China-Arab relations and China-GCC relations,” Xi said on Thursday in remarks carried by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.

The Gulf countries, strategic partners of Washington, are bolstering ties with China as part of an eastward turn that involves diversifying their fossil fuel-reliant economies.

Meanwhile China is trying to widen its sphere of influence, notably through its Belt and Road Initiative, in which it is providing funding for infrastructure projects around the world.

- ‘Prestige’ trade deals -

Officials have provided few details about Friday’s agenda, but one potential area of focus is a China-GCC free trade agreement that has been under discussion for nearly two decades.

“China will want to draw the lengthy negotiations to a close, as FTAs with major trading blocs is a matter of prestige for Beijing,” said Robert Mogielnicki of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“It’s not as simple for the GCC states, which seem to be more invested in advancing bilateral ties and are engaged in varying degrees of regional economic competition with their neighbouring member states.”

A breakthrough on the trade deal could help Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter and the Middle East’s biggest economy, diversify its economy in line with the Vision 2030 reform agenda championed by Prince Mohammed.

Saudi state media have said that bilateral deals worth about $30 billion were expected to be signed during the visit.

Yet Mogielnicki said the significance of any announcements would only be clear if they went beyond pledges.

“When it comes to China’s bilateral relations with the Gulf and broader Middle East, one must remember that signing MoUs (memoranda of understanding) and making investment pledges is much easier than actually committing capital,” he said.

Xi’s Middle East trip has already earned a rebuke from the White House, which on Wednesday warned of “the influence that China is trying to grow around the world”, calling its objectives “not conducive to preserving the international rules-based order”.