A security officer holds a cordon during the meeting between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, fifth right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Friday. Photo: How Hwee Young / AFP

Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pledged close economic ties and brushed aside the plight of the Uighur Muslims on a landmark visit to China.

Saudi Aramco on Friday inked a major deal with Chinese companies NORINCO and Panjin Sincen to build an integrated oil refinery and petrochemical complex in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning as part of a new company, Huajin Aramco Petrochemical Co Ltd, and an MOU with Zhejiang Petrochemical, with an eye on a 9% stake in the company’s refinery and petrochemical complex in the northeastern Chinese city of Zhoushan.

The Saudi state-run behemoth heralded the first deal, valued at $10 billion, as an unprecedented Sino-Foreign joint venture. The Saudis are slated to provide 70% of the 300,000 barrels per day of crude to the refinery, which is expected to commence operations in 2024, according to a press release.

Saudi Aramco CEO Amin Nasser called the deal, “a clear demonstration of Saudi Aramco’s strategy to move from beyond a buyer-seller relationship, to one where we can make significant investments to contribute to China’s economic growth and development.

“Our participation in the integrated refining and petrochemical project in Panjin will strengthen our collaborative efforts to enhance energy security, revitalize key growth sectors and industries in Liaoning and also meet rising demand for products and goods in China’s northeast region,” he added.

Security was a key word for the young crown prince when it came to addressing the elephant in the room: China’s mass-internment of its minority Muslim population, the Uighurs. Beijing has acknowledged the existence of “re-education” camps but insists they are vocational and part of a broader counter-terrorism effort. Uighur activists say the government is trying to wipe out their culture and religion.

In a meeting with President Xi Jinping on Friday, the 33-year-old crown prince, who is widely known as MBS, said Beijing has “the right to carry out anti-terrorism and de-radicalization work for its national security.” The comments were relayed by Chinese state television CCTV.

“Saudi Arabia has no conflict with China,” the crown prince added, making clear he would not allow the Uighur issue to threaten growing ties with Beijing. It was not a surprising position. Muslim leaders from Ankara to Cairo have not only shunned the issue but even enhanced cooperation with Beijing amid its crackdown. Yet the apparent condoning of the Chinese campaign (as opposed to ignoring) was notable on a landmark visit by the scion of the Saudi monarchy, which derives its legitimacy from being the custodian of Mecca.

Trump to Xi

Since Mohammed bin Salman’s days as defense minister, the ambitious prince bet on an inside track with the Trump clique. But he has increasingly hedged his kingdom’s fortunes further East, courting Moscow and other Asian capitals, driven in part by fraying ties with US lawmakers over the grisly October 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The outcry morphed into unprecedented bipartisan scrutiny of Riyadh’s military campaign in Yemen, with the House of Representatives earlier this month resurrecting the 1973 War Powers Act to demand an end to American military backing for the war.

On his two-day visit, the crown prince called Beijing a strategic partner, overseeing his delegation concluding dozens of agreements in the economic sphere, communications sector, and even sensitive fields like maritime security.

Saudi Transportation Minister Nabil bin Mohammed al-Amoudi on Saturday announced a new cooperation agreement “aimed at enhancing the maritime transport industry and developing it between the two countries.”

China has long been at odds with its neighbors and the United States over its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. More recently, a deal for a Chinese firm to run the Israeli port of Haifa has come under scrutiny in Washington over fears of espionage activities targeting the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet, which docks its vessels there.

Amoudi said the new Sino-Saudi agreements would “enhance the transfer of technology between maritime transport bodies and institutions of both countries … providing facilities for shipbuilding and their maintenance, and encourage the establishment of maritime companies and joint maritime institutions between the two countries.”

It will also provide scholarships for Saudi maritime personnel to train in China.

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