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Saudi Arabia will host Xi Jinping in a milestone moment for China-Saudi relations

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Saudi Arabia has a whole lot of oil. China has a whole lot of everything else, which means the countries' leaders will have a lot to talk about.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah. China's leader, Xi Jinping, is on a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia and is expected to meet with Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful crown prince, along with some other leaders from around the Persian Gulf. So what would a closer relationship between those nations mean for the United States?

MARTIN: NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam is with us. Hey, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What do the Saudis, what do the Chinese, what do each camp want through this summit?

NORTHAM: Well, broadly, it's an opportunity to help cement relations between the two countries. And the Saudis say they're going to sign a strategic partnership with Xi while he's in Riyadh, as well as some energy deals. The two nations have strong ties. Saudi Arabia is one of China's largest suppliers of oil. And China is the kingdom's biggest trading partner. Chinese companies, you know, have major infrastructure projects in Saudi Arabia, such as ports and telecommunications, and are looking for more investment opportunities. But equally important is the symbolism of Xi's visit, which shows that Saudi Arabia has other options than the U.S. And it may be recalibrating its foreign policy.

MARTIN: I mean, Xi's visit to Saudi Arabia comes just months after President Biden was there. Explain the difference between the U.S. and Chinese approaches to Saudi Arabia.

NORTHAM: Well, both Beijing and Washington are competing for influence in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf region. China's approach to the kingdom is more transactional. And as I mentioned, Xi's visit will be geared to opening more investment opportunities and securing an important energy source for China. On the other hand, U.S. presidents traditionally have had personal relationships with Saudi kings. And that's not true with President Biden and the crown prince. They have quite a frosty relationship.

But even so, the U.S. and Saudi relationship has been built for decades on security strategy, like regional stability and opposing Iran. And you can't underestimate that. But over the past few years, especially since the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, became the de facto leader, you've seen Saudi Arabia indicate that it doesn't want to be beholden to the U.S. It considers itself a modern and rich nation that wants to make its own decisions. And that goes for the other Gulf nations, you know, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar. They want to keep their options open and go where their interests lie.

MARTIN: Neither China nor Saudi Arabia are democracies, right? Does that endear them to each other in a way that could undermine democracy elsewhere?

NORTHAM: Well, both men are considered autocrats. Xi Jinping recently locked in his position as China's leader for the third term. And the crown prince is expected to be king one day. You know, the two leaders probably won't be discussing human rights during this visit. Unlike the U.S., China isn't going to bring up the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents a few years ago. But, you know, having said all that, there is a place for the U.S. still. And it could depend on who is president. The crown prince had a very strong relationship with former President Trump. And who knows if and how relations could change depending on who's in the White House.

MARTIN: NPR's Jackie Northam. Thanks, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.