Saudi Arabia and China’s strengthening relationship is increasingly important to both Riyadh and Beijing as the kingdom pushes ahead with Vision 2030 and China with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Saudi Arabia’s geoeconomic pivot to the East and China’s growing footprint in the kingdom’s economy highlight how bilateral ties have strengthened in recent years.
Synergies between Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s ambitious economic diversification agenda unveiled in 2016, and the BRI offer the potential to further connect the two countries in the years to come.
Tourism is a pillar of Saudi Vision 2030, and China ranked number one globally as a source of tourists in 2019, with Chinese people making 155 million outbound trips and spending more than $250bn while vacationing outside of China. Because of the COVID pandemic, the numbers for 2020 and 2021 dropped down to 20 and 26 million tourists, respectively.
The Saudi government seeks to bring in an annual $46bn in tourism revenue by the end of this decade, and it can achieve much growth with more Chinese vacationers coming to Saudi Arabia. In 2019, just before the COVID pandemic caused Saudi Arabia’s tourism revenues to plummet, the kingdom’s receipts from this sector reached $19.85bn – the highest ever.
As China recovers from the major economic setbacks caused by the country’s stringent zero-COVID policies, Saudi Arabia is focused on tapping into its tourism market as the number of Chinese travelling overseas as tourists will naturally rise. In March, Saudi Tourism Authority CEO Fahd Hamidaddin met with China’s Vice Minister of Culture and Tourism Rao Quan to discuss launching joint tourism initiatives aimed at helping the kingdom attract nearly four million Chinese tourists a year by 2030.
Beijing sees Vision 2030’s success as extremely important to China’s own interests in the Middle East. If the kingdom’s economy fails to diversify beyond oil, there will be a devastating economic crash that could lead to new layers of instability in the region, threatening the BRI and China’s global trade ambitions that have the most to gain from lasting peace and stability on the Arabian Peninsula.
The Saudis are “determined to make tourism and entertainment their number two national industry after oil and energy. Chinese tourism is a potentially huge market for them,” Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW), told Al Jazeera. “If they can tap into that vast potential, it will be another large step forward in moving beyond total reliance on hydrocarbons for foreign exchange and commerce.”
“Many of the Gulf’s tourism hubs are hoping to capitalise on a return of Chinese tourists after years of lockdown in China,” Robert Mogielnicki, a senior resident scholar at AGSIW, told Al Jazeera.
As Saudi Arabia works to make itself one of those hubs, Ibish added, “There are many possible reasons for Chinese tourists to make the trip, even just to experience a radically different culture and environment to their own.”
As Ibish explained, the kingdom has three main attractions that could bring in many tourists. First, ancient Saudi sites such as the oasis city of al-Ula in Medina province have some of the oldest relics and monuments on Earth. Second, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, mountains and rock landscapes have a natural beauty that would appeal to tourists. Third, as the Saudi economy diversifies, there is a growing entertainment sector offering concerts, cultural fairs, sports events, car shows, and so on while Neom – a planned megacity in northwestern Saudi Arabia, which is supposed to house up to 2 million people by 2030 – can potentially lure many tourists to the kingdom.
According to Ahmed Aboudouh, nonresident fellow with the Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, Saudi Arabia seems to have studied Japan’s national tourism strategy and Australia’s China 2020 Strategic Plan very closely.
These plans include “relaxing visa policies, improving air links, upgrading travel services and other targeted approaches, including utilising traditional Chinese media and popular social media platforms to promote Saudi destinations and rolling out technological payment solutions”, Aboudouh said.
“Chinese tourists’ spending power will not only supply the local market and create jobs in Saudi Arabia but will also consolidate supply chains between China and the Gulf and boost the aviation industry in the region. In addition to [their] vast potential to support Saudi plans to diversify the economy … Chinese tourists are a crucial component in the cultural exchange leg of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the two,” he added.
Regional and international competition
There is much to say about competition for Chinese tourists. If Saudi Arabia attracts more, it could undermine the number of Chinese tourists fellow Gulf states and European countries are attracting so far.
“There is definitely regional competition for tourists,” explained Mogielnicki. “[T]here will be winners and losers when it comes to the top Chinese tourism destinations in the Gulf.”
Aboudouh told Al Jazeera that the kingdom’s incentives for Chinese tourism may trigger competition with neighbouring Oman and the UAE, which will “manifest in more incentives, travel offers, and regulations aimed at empowering local travel agencies and deals with the Chinese travel market”.
Within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), intensified competition for Chinese tourists could put Beijing in a challenging position in terms of its “hedging” strategy aimed at balancing Beijing’s good relations with all Gulf countries by avoiding moving too close to any one country. Therefore, Aboudouh expects to see a “balanced outbound Chinese tourism policy to the famous Gulf destinations and a focus on utilising the BRI and Global Development Initiative to avoid alienating any of China’s Gulf partners in the region”.
But experts believe that this will not inevitably be a zero-sum game of competition for the Gulf nations. Rail and visa schemes could serve to increase connectivity between Saudi Arabia and the other five GCC member states, which “may allow Gulf countries to spread the incoming tourism wealth around the region in a way that was more difficult to do in the past”, according to Mogielnicki.
Tourism’s importance to Sino-Saudi relations
Most discussions about the kingdom’s multidimensional relationship with China do not concern tourism, which is not the most important aspect of ties between the two nations. The most important aspects of Sino-Saudi relations appear to be oil, trade, and sensitive technology.
Yet, growing tourism links will do much to deepen Sino-Saudi relations in ways that go beyond economics. “The tourism angle helps to fill out the various contours of this expanding relationship,” Mogielnicki told Al Jazeera.
“Greater tourism flows from China to Saudi Arabia will likewise have a social and cultural impact in the kingdom.”
As Ibish explained, expanded Sino-Saudi tourism ties “would go a long way to strengthening the Saudi economic transition and promoting people-to-people exchange and understanding, which can be the bedrock for other aspects of a stronger partnership.”