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 make his first foreign trip since the onset of COVID-19 pandemic for 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.
Before and since President Biden took office, debates have proliferated around an American “retrenchment” from the Middle East. The administration has consistently asserted that it is not withdrawing from the region, only aligning strategy and resources — “right-sizing” in the parlance of the moment. Still, most of the region remains unconvinced.
President Biden made his first trip to the Middle East last week, visiting Israel and Saudi Arabia. While the trip yielded little in the way of flashy announcements — like new normalization agreements or Saudi Arabia boosting oil production — it did demonstrate that the United States remains focused on enhancing the region’s security architecture, particularly to counter Iran. Still, there were some notable developments, like a U.S.-Saudi agreement to build 5G and 6G telecommunications networks and Riyadh opening airspace to Israeli flights. On the Israeli-Palestinian front, the president affirmed Washington’s long-standing commitment to Israel and said that now was not the time to reengage on peace talks with the Palestinians.
The states on the western side of the Red Sea to the south of Egypt and the Arab states from the east of Egypt through the Arabian Gulf have long been considered distinct regions. This is increasingly a distinction without a difference, however, as these states now operate more as a common political, security, and economic zone.