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International relations

Saudi prince cozies up to Xi as US pressures both

Countries cement $10bn deal to build petrochemical complex in China

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, during their summit in Beijing on Feb. 22.   © AP

BEIJING/DUBAI -- Chinese leaders welcomed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the capital on Feb. 22, agreeing to an $10 billion petrochemical deal and hailing warm bilateral relations as the U.S. steps up pressure on both countries.

"China is a good friend and partner to Saudi Arabia," Chinese President Xi Jinping told the crown prince in front of reporters in the Great Hall of the People.

"China firmly supports Saudi Arabia's right to uphold its sovereignty and opposes any interference in its internal affairs," Xi was quoted as saying by China Central Television. The statement was an apparent swipe at U.S. criticism over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October, allegedly orchestrated by Riyadh.

"We have never experienced any problems with China," the crown prince said, citing the two nations' long history.

"The Silk Road [Belt and Road] initiative and China's strategic orientation are very much in line with the kingdom's Vision 2030," the crown prince added, referring to Riyadh's economic reform program. He said the two sides will rapidly expand economic and trade cooperation.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seen during his visit to Great Wall of China on Feb. 21.   © Reuters

The crown prince arrived in Beijing on Feb. 21 for the last leg of his Asia tour, following visits to Pakistan and India. He visited the Great Wall of China and posed for photos.

Ahead of his meeting with Xi on Feb. 22, the de-facto Saudi leader met with Vice Premier Han Zheng, the Chinese Communist Party's seventh-ranking member, to sign cooperation pacts on energy, infrastructure construction, finance and science.

The official Saudi Press Agency said the agreements are worth a total of $28 billion. This includes a $10 billion petrochemical complex in China to be built by state-run oil company Saudi Aramco and Chinese state-owned military conglomerate Norinco.

It is widely believed that Crown Prince Mohammed has had a hand in the Khashoggi murder, committed in a Saudi consulate. The European Union has also criticized Riyadh for lax policies toward money laundering and terrorism. The bloc has added Saudi Arabia to its dirty-money blacklist, hardening its stance against the country.

Even as the crown prince became internationally isolated after the death of Khashoggi, Russia and China stood by him. Pressure from shareholders and human rights groups has made U.S. and European companies hesitant about doing business in Saudi Arabia, while their Russian and Chinese counterparts swoop in.

Beijing has also taken international criticism for cracking down on its mostly Muslim ethnic Uighur minority in the northwest region of Xinjiang. Saudi Arabia, the self-proclaimed guardian of Islam's two holiest mosques in Mecca and Medina, has remained silent on the issue out of concern for its Chinese ties.

Some U.S. and European energy companies and financial institutions have begun exploring ways to mend fences with Saudi Arabia. But Khashoggi's murder demonstrates the political risks associated with the Saudi market.

The crown prince's campaign to reduce his country's dependence on oil will require foreign companies and political cooperation. The fate of such economic reforms, however, could hinge more heavily on China now.

Xi has welcomed the Saudi overtures. Bringing Riyadh, which has long had close relations with Washington, is politically convenient for China as a protracted standoff with the U.S. now looks unavoidable.

At the same time, China is also working carefully to maintain ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional archrival. Xi met with Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani in China on Feb. 20. As Beijing brings mutual enemies together in opposition to the U.S., it will test the ancient proverb "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

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