Last month witnessed considerable media speculation that Chinese leader Xi Jinping would soon visit Saudi Arabia in what would be his first trip overseas in two and a half years. However, this trip has yet to materialize. As the recent visit by a senior U.S. congressional leader to Taiwan reminds us, not every high-level government visit is necessarily publicly announced ahead of time. While it appears that Xi will be attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in Uzbekistan on September 15, it’s worth exploring what these swirling rumors of an imminent Xi trip to Riyadh mean.

Xi Jinping arrives at the Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, Feb. 16, 2012. Xi has not made a foreign trip since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times)
Xi Jinping arrives at the Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, Feb. 16, 2012. Xi has not made a foreign trip since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times)

These news reports were plausible for four reasons. First, the timing appeared propitious. Second, the COVID pandemic seemed to be abating, making Xi more inclined to go abroad. Third, Saudi leaders were keen on a visit. Fourth, China’s top leader was eager to resume international travel with a high-profile flourish to key geostrategic region of the world like the Middle East. So why is Xi headed to Central Asia instead?

Why Now? Propitious Timing

First and foremost, Xi is fully embarked upon the final phase of his preparatory campaign for the most consequential Chinese Communist Party (CCP) conclave in a decade. In addition to holding the position of China’s head of state, Xi also serves as general-secretary of the CCP. Indeed. because China is a party-state in which the CCP dominates all, Xi’s party post carries far more significance than his state office. The CCP’s 20th Party Congress is scheduled to commence on October 16 and Xi is running for an unprecedented third term as CCP chief. The outcome of the election may not be in doubt, but this does not mean that Xi is taking his recoronation for granted.

He wants to ensure that the high-profile formal gathering itself is meticulously stage-managed and that the months leading up to the event showcase Xi’s domestic accomplishments and highlight his international stature. To this end, in recent months, Xi has begun stepping out of his COVID cocoon. In July he made a rare visit to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. In late June, Xi traveled to Hong Kong to preside over festivities commemorating the 25th anniversary of the transfer of the former British colony to a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China and personally administered the oath of office to the SAR’s latest handpicked chief executive — his first in-person appearance outside of mainland China since January 2020.

Overcoming COVID Concerns

Second, Xi is starting to feel safer, believing that he is now reasonably well protected against the virus as long as he takes precautions. Just as large numbers of citizens in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have been locked down for extended periods over the past two plus years to counter COVID-19, so Xi has been sheltered inside a protective bubble to insulate himself from the pandemic. While it appears that Xi has been vaccinated and is in reasonably good health, the 69-year-old dictator remains worried about catching the virus and hence has limited his exposure to others and drastically curtailed his vigorous pre-COVID domestic and foreign travel schedule. Most of his 2022 interactions with foreign leaders — such as his August tete-a-tete with President Joe Biden — have been conducted virtually. There have been exceptions, but all in-person meetings have taken place on Chinese soil — notable face-to-faces include with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in February on the sidelines of the Beijing Winter Olympics and, more recently, in late July, with Indonesian President Joko Widodo. The last foreign trip Xi made was in January 2020 when the Chinese leader visited neighboring Myanmar.

Xi’s travel and appearances in recent months, both public and private, are managed to limit the risks to his health. Of course, even under normal circumstances Xi’s meetings and events are carefully scripted and closely choreographed to ensure China’s top leader is both secure and portrayed in the best possible light. But these efforts have been ratcheted up in recent months to minimize his direct contact and exposure to viruses as he begins to venture beyond Beijing. In the lead up to Xi’s recent stopover in Hong Kong, thousands of guests and employees at the venues where he was scheduled to appear were subjected to daily COVID tests and multi-day quarantines. Moreover, Xi did not even spend the night in the SAR but retired to what was presumably considered to be a safer location — a state guesthouse in the next-door Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.

Convening at the Crossroads of Competition

Third, Saudi leaders are very keen to have the Chinese leader visit the kingdom. Back in March, Riyadh reportedly issued a formal invitation to Xi. The visit by the PRC leader would underscore Saudi Arabia’s status as a regional powerbroker with a reach that is increasingly global. A high-profile visit by Xi would demonstrate that Riyadh has a set of large and powerful friends outside its neighborhood. As the title of a recent report highlights, the Middle East has emerged as the world’s “crossroads of competition” where the United States, China and Russia all vie for geopolitical influence and geoeconomic advantage.

Yet, Middle Eastern states, including Saudi Arabia, are not passive actors and actively seek to leverage great power competition for national benefit. Riyadh’s relations with Washington have cooled considerably in the aftermath of the 2018 killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the publication of a U.S. Government report stating that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (commonly referred to as MBS) approved the operation. China’s values-free diplomacy allows Beijing to overlook such outrages and Riyadh returns the favor. While President Biden has sought to get beyond the frostiness in relations, his July visit to Saudi Arabia was noticeably strained, as captured in the image of an awkward fist bump between the U.S. head of state and MBS. A state visit by PRC leader Xi would send an unmistakable signal to Washington that Riyadh has options. The visit would not only carry important symbolism but would be backdropped by the reality of considerable trade and investment activity and noteworthy security cooperation between Saudi Arabia and China.

Why Saudi Arabia?

Fourth, Xi himself is eager for red carpet treatment that would make him look statesman-like and highlight the great deference that China is afforded around the world, and for Xi to take personal credit for China’s rise in power and status. A late 2022 or early 2023 visit to Saudi Arabia would implicitly put the Chinese leader on par with the leader of the world’s most powerful state. Furthermore, Xi is likely to be received with much more pomp and circumstance than Biden and would almost certainly be afforded all the ceremonial trappings of a state visit, something that Washington sought to avoid on Biden’s visit. Video feed of a Xi visit would saturate Chinese television screens and the internet, and photo ops would fill print media. The result would further strengthen Xi’s almost unassailable incumbent advantage at the Party Congress. To be clear, official announcement of the visit has yet to be given but Xi is likely to be eager to visit Riyadh in the near future.

Such a trip by Xi would be to a key Chinese partner in a region of tremendous geostrategic importance to China. Beyond being a significant source of petroleum, Beijing considers Riyadh to be a steady, trusted, and reliable friend in a particularly volatile region. Moreover, Xi’s cordial relationship with Saudi Arabia’s most visible and vigorous senior leader, MBS, contrasts with Biden’s strained personal ties.

Moreover, the Middle East looms large as a central arena of geopolitical competition and the visit allows Xi to demonstrate that China is now a major player in a region where in recent history Beijing has tended to be absent and long ceded ground to Washington, Moscow and other out-of-region capitals. Xi’s welcome in Riyadh would signal to 96 million CCP members and 1.4 billion Chinese people that their country has become a major player in the Middle East and by extension a global power since only consequential outside countries get traction in the region.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia would make an ideal destination for the Chinese leader because Xi will be guaranteed that he will not face uncomfortable topics behind closed doors, confront criticism from his hosts in front of the cameras, or parry awkward questions from reporters. Even on the matter of Beijing’s repression of Chinese Muslims, especially its harsh crackdown on the Uyghur minority, Xi can be confident that Saudi leaders will not bring it up. This is because Beijing continues to work extremely hard to inoculate itself from public criticism from Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia with remarkable effectiveness. Of course, in return China does not call out the human rights records of countries like Saudi Arabia.

Why Central Asia and not Riyadh?

Since there seems to be no downside for Xi to visit Saudi Arabia, why has the Chinese leader yet to visit Riyadh? While the answer is not completely clear, circumstantial evidence suggests that Xi continues to be preoccupied with recurring waves of COVID inside China and is more comfortable traveling to a foreign destination closer to home. It appears that his first overseas trip in more than two and a half years will be to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) annual heads of state summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on September 15 and 16. This foray into Central Asia will still permit Xi to look every inch the statesman appearing in carefully staged events with multiple foreign leaders. Of special note is the opportunity to engage directly his closest international counterpart, Vladmir Putin. Xi has met more frequently with the Russian dictator than he has with any other foreign leader. Moreover, Xi is guaranteed a grandiose welcome at a regional multilateral forum that China took the lead in creating 21 years ago and in which it remains the most important member state.  

The CCP’s inability to eradicate the pandemic at home has become not only an embarrassment but also source of popular disaffection in China. Furthermore, Xi is directly associated with the “zero COVID” policy upon which the party has publicly staked its credibility. The expressions of individual anger and collective frustration seems less directed at the CCP’s inability to eradicate the pandemic and more at the hardships people confront as a result of the party-state’s draconian lockdowns imposed somewhat arbitrarily in cities and locales across China. Xi very likely feels that he cannot afford to be seen as taking an extended foreign sojourn further afield while the people of China endure great hardships back home.

The Chinese leader may also be worried about contracting COVID or some other illness on a long trip. In the lead up to the Party Congress, Xi is almost certainly focused on staying healthy. When the curtain rises on the CCP quinquennial gathering the leader wants to look the epitome of a vigorous and dynamic dictator who is fully prepared to lead his party and his people for a third five-year term.

A trip by Xi Jinping to Saudi Arabia is almost certainly still in the cards but is probably on hold until after his October recoronation. In the meantime, Samarkand beckons.

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