(Art direction: Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli)
On 7 December 2022, China’s president Xi Jinping received a royal welcome at his arrival in Saudi Arabia for a three days state visit. State visits between China and Saudi Arabia heads of state have taken place since 2016.
In 2022, President Xi received a royal and considerably warmer welcome than Joe Biden in July (Tamara Qiblawi, “Saudi’s MBS rolls out red carpet for China’s Xi, in a not subtle message to Biden”, CNN, 14 December, 2022).
Furthermore, during this state visit, President Xi was the first Chinese head of state to attend a Gulf Cooperation Council summit. That session, taking place in Riyad, included very high levels representatives from the whole Middle East-North Africa region (“President Xi Jinping attends first China-GCC summit and delivers keynote speech”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 2022-12-10).
The President, the King and AI
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Nowadays, China is the main importer of the Saudi oil production. China buys almost 18% of it. Yet, if energy was a major feature of this visit, artificial intelligence (AI) issues were also a central topic of the visit.
This led to the signing of dozens of massive partnerships contracts between Saudi and Chinese companies about the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and smart cities, AI training, 5G development, cloud computing, fintech, telecommunications, quantum computing, education and green technologies, among others (Rawan Radwan, “Why China is a natural partner for Saudi Arabia in its quest to become a tech innovation leader” Arab News, Decembre 7, 2022).
Chinese military drones and surveillance technologies’ sales were also part of the signing spree, which is said to reach around 30 billion dollars in value. For example, Huawei, the Chinese AI giant, signed a memorandum of understanding for the development of installations in several Saudi cities (“Xi visit: Saudi Arabia inks deal with Huawei, despite US fears”, Asian Financial, 9 December 2022).
In other words, this state visit was literally a formalization of the convergence of the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and of the Saudi AI development. This convergence has profound geopolitical consequences. Those are especially important in terms of the reinforcement of Chinese influence in an area that had been so far largely oriented towards the U.S. and of the related transformation of the Gulf states.
From oil to AI: The Saudi-China Great Convergence
The negotiations between Saudi Arabia and China related to buying Saudi oil with Chinese yuans, thus creating a “petroyuan”, attracted a lot of international attention. However, it appears that the scale of the partnership is staggeringly wider when including the AI field (Maha El Dahan and Aziz El Yaacoubi, “China’s Xi calls for oil trade in Yuan at Gulf summit in Riyadh”, Reuters, Decembre 10, 2022, and KN Pandita, “China takes the “tech route” to boost ties with the Middle-East ; U.S looks at China-Gulf synergy with alarm“, The Eurasian Times, 7 December, 2022).
Those AI negotiations become de facto a policy when the Saudi minister for information and communication technology and the Chinese minister of industry and information technology signed a common strategic partnership plan (Rawan Radwan, ibid).
The plan aims at covering all aspects of the AI field, from technological development to training through robotics. The improvement, among others, of communication infrastructure, cloud computing, research and innovation is also part of the plan. One must also note the development of quantum information technology (“AI and Digital economy development key part of Saudi-China partnership plan”, Arab News, December 9, 2022 and Hélène Lavoix, “Portal to AI-Understanding AI and Foreseeing the AI powered world”, and “Portal to Quantum Information Science and Technology- Towards a Quantum AI World ?” The Red Team Analysis Society).
It is in this context that Huawei, the AI giant, signed a memorandum of understanding. The latter is about the development of facilities in Saudi cities and of cloud computing. This comes after Huawei built 5G infrastructures in several Persian Gulf countries (Aziz El Yaacoubi and Edouardo Baptista, “Saudi Arabia signs Huawei deal, deepening China ties on Xi’s visit”, Reuters, December 8, 2022).
The development of AI is a central feature of the Saudi Arabia 2030 framework. The framework aims at achieving both the diversification of the Kingdom economy beyond oil and adaptation to climate change (Saudi Vision 2030 and Jumana Khamis, “Look ahead 2023: grim forecasts underscore the importance of climate adaptation for Middle East and North African countries”, Arab News, January 03, 2023).
The Neom attractor
This dynamic imbues the development of the mega project Neom: the integration of four new cities into a smart urban complex.
Located on the Red Sea, close both to Jordan and Egypt, Neom is going to be a giant laboratory for the diversification of the Saudi economy through innovation. It will notably explore adaptation paths to the raging effects of climate change through the use of AI (“Saudi Arabia ‘not building The Line” but AI is, says NEOM executive”, Arabian Business, November 30, 2022).
In other words, the integration of AI aims at turning Saudi Arabia into a 21st century great power. The Kingdom uses its oil rent to transform from an energy giant into a major digital power.
In this context, the Chinese experience of investing massively to become the world leader in the AI field in 2030 will certainly be a strategic asset for the Saudi party. The same is true of the Chinese experience in installing networks of AI “city brains” (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Chinese Artificial Intelligence Revolution”, The Red Team Analysis Society, November 13, 2017).
The BRI and the Arab states
As it happens, those numerous Chinese-Saudi cooperations in AI appear as a new dimension of the convergence between the Saudi Arabia 2030 grand strategy and the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Saudi Arabia and the Chinese Belt&Road : The Great Convergence”, The Red Team Analysis Society, March 11, 2019).
The BRI, deployed since 2013, is a strategy aimed at ensuring for China the constant flows of energy resources, commodities and products. Those flows are necessary to the current industrial and capitalist development of the 1,4 billion strong “Middle Kingdom”. (Jean-Michel Valantin, “China and the New Silk Road – From oil wells to the moon … and beyond”, The Red Team Analysis Society, July 6 2015). Since then, it has attracted the interest and commitment of numerous Asian, African, Middle-Eastern European and South -American countries.
The BRI is a new expression of the Chinese philosophical and strategic thought (Valantin, “China and the New Silk Road: the Pakistani strategy”, The Red Team Analysis, May 18, 2015). It is grounded in an understanding of the spatial dimension of China, in the geographical sense. Space is conceived as a support to spread Chinese influence and power to the “outside”. However, it also allows the Middle Kingdom to “aspirate” what it needs from the “outside” to the “inside”. (Quynh Delaunay, Naissance de la Chine moderne, L’Empire du Milieu dans la globalisation, 2014).
This is why we qualify some spaces as being “useful” to the deployment of the BRI. And each “useful space” is related, and “useful”, to other “useful spaces”.
From Saudi Arabia to China, and Back
Hence, the Persian Gulf and its states are fundamental “useful spaces” for China. As a result, Saudi Arabia is de facto of great interest for the BRI: Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf states and Arab states become a useful space. Indeed, the BRI increases the Saudi capabilities to respond to the Chinese energy needs.
Coupling China, the Gulf and the Mediterranean world
One must add that the geography of Saudi Arabia furthers the opening of the maritime BRI to the Red Sea, thanks to the Saudi ports, such as Yanbu and Jeddah.
In other words, the BRI improves the access of the Chinese civil fleet to the Red Sea. As a consequence, the Chinese convoys can access the Suez Canal and thus the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, coupling the BRI and Saudi Arabia further open the markets of the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe to China.
From Huawei, with Love
In this context, the Saudi- Huawei deal is of particular interest, because of the company’s expertise in “intelligentizing” pipelines.
This expertise has been developed over more than a decade, first in Central Asia (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Artificial Intelligence on the Chinese New Silk Road”, The Red Team Analysis, December 4, 2017 and “World’s longest smart pipeline”, Huawei case study, 30/03/2013). It has the potential to be of great interest to Aramco, the Saudi oil giant company.
Furthermore, Huawei is already active in Saudi Arabia. The company has a contract with the Saudi Railways. It is also building a huge battery energy storage on the Red Sea. The project, based in Neom, complements the installation of a mammoth 400 MW solar plant (Dale Aruf, “China’s tech outreach in the Middle East and North Africa”, The Diplomat, November 17, 2022).
And, as it happens, Huawei and other Chinese tech companies are already active in the other Gulf states. It is especially true in the UAE, with joint ventures dedicated to solar power smart solutions (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The U.A.E, Artificial Intelligence and the Sustainability Revolution”, The Red Team Analysis, February 19, 2018).
In other words, the AI dimension of the Saudi Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China partnership is a massive step for the deployment of the “digital Silk Road” (Jonathan E. Hillmann, The Digital Silk Road, China’s Quest to Wire the World and Win the Future, 2021).
This deployment supports the extension of the Chinese influence in and through the Saudi Kingdom. This whole dynamic is self-reinforcing despite the strong reluctance of the United States to accept this geopolitical convergence.
From U.S. influence to Saudi-China influence
Indeed, the energy and AI Saudi Arabia-China great convergence is a major strategic shift that weakens the U.S. influence both in the Middle-East and in Asia.
As it happens, the digital Silk Road has multiple incarnations, especially through the extension of fibre optic cables networks (Jonathan E. Hillman, ibid).
The most important of these cables is the Pakistan & East Africa cable connecting Europe (PEACE). It connects China to Pakistan then to Djibouti and Egypt, then to Europe. At the same time, Huawei is developing technology centres in eight MENA countries, including Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt. Nine other cables connect MENA countries with China. Meanwhile, Chinese companies multiply high-tech deals with Israeli firms (Dale Aruf, ibid).
The same is true with Beidou, the Chinese global positioning system that competes with the American GPS. Since 2017, China has launched the China-Arab states Beidou Cooperation Forum. Saudi Arabia, Oman, Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco now deploy Beidou (Dale Aruf, ibid).
Undermining U.S. influence
So, from a geopolitical point of view, the Arab choice of Chinese technology is deeply meaningful. Indeed, those countries adopt those Chinese technologies, while the United States ban Huawei, ZTE and other Chinese telecommunication companies from their territory (Diane Bartz, Alexandra Alper, “U.S bans Huawei, ZTE equipment sales, citing national security risks”, Reuters, December 1, 2022).
Meanwhile, the U.S. political and trade authorities ban any export of U.S. advanced technology, including microchips for AI.
However, the Arab states multiply giant deals with those very same Chinese companies that the U.S consider as a potential danger (Rishi Iyengar, “Biden short circuits China”, Foreign Policy, 28 October 2022).
Those Arab strategic choices are also supported by the fact that China does not condition its economic cooperation on political and moral obligations. So, the cooperation between the Middle Kingdom and the Arab states is very fluid (Loretta Napoleoni, Maonomics, Why Chinese communists make better capitalists than we do ?, Seven Stories Press, 2011).
In fact, using the framework devised by Hélène Lavoix, at the level of the normative dimension of the developing war between the U.S. and China, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and other Arab countries are adopting the Chinese technological norms (Hélène Lavoix, “The War between China and the U.S- The Normative Dimension”, The Red Team Analysis Society, July 4, 2022). By doing so, the convergence of the development strategies of China and of the Arab states undermines the U.S. influence in the MENA region.
So, while defeats and dramatic blunders in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan weaken the U.S. influence and power, the Arab states acquire new tools of economic development from China.
Welcome to AI geopolitics
This “conversion” of Saudi Arabia and of the Gulf states to the Chinese technology and influence has deep consequences. De facto, it subverts the Kingdom-U.S. relationship based on the Saudi oil exports “in exchange” for U.S. security (Michael Klare, Blood and oil, the dangers and consequences of America’s growing dependency on imported petroleum, 2004 and Jean-Michel Valantin, “Oil Flood (1): The Kingdom is Back” and “Oil Flood (2)- Oil and Politics in a (Real) Multipolar World”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, December 15, 2014, January 12, 2015).
In this regard, we have to remember that the whole Persian Gulf region is under the direct U.S. military influence. This influence is exercised through the fifth fleet, the land and air forces and a network of bases. All those forces are under the direct authority of the U.S. Central Command.
In this context, the development of the Gulf states through AI Chinese technology is a literal geopolitical and existential shift away from the U.S. influence. Thus, it is also a weakening of the U.S. technological and military hegemony in the region (“China takes the ‘Tech Route’ to boost ties with the Middle-East; U.S looks at Beijing-Gulf synergy with Alarm”, Arab News, December 8, 2022).
In other terms, the whole MENA region integrates the giant political, normative, technological and economic battlefield that the China-U.S. conflict defines (Wendy Robinson, “The Rise of China’s AI in the Gulf: a renewal of China’s ‘Serbia Model’”, Fikra Forum, an initiative of the Washington Institute for Near east Policy, October 13, 2020).
In next articles, we shall see how this conflict could evolve and worsen..