Saudi crown prince hails China relations at talks with Xi

BEIJING — Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hailed relations with China as trouble-free, during talks Friday with President Xi Jinping in Beijing aimed at strengthening relations in the face of criticism from the West over the kingdom's human rights record and its war in Yemen.

Citing a 33 percent increase in bilateral trade last year, the crown prince said high-level contacts were paying off in areas from commerce to security and defense.

"Saudi Arabia's relations with China can be traced back a very long time in the past," Prince Mohammed told Xi at their meeting in the hulking Great Hall of the People in the heart of the Chinese capital.

"Over such a long period of exchanges with China, we have never experienced any problems with China," he said.

His visit come five months after the crown prince came under intense pressure in the U.S. and elsewhere following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. In the U.S. Congress, criticism has also been building for months over the kingdom's handling of the war in Yemen, where it is accused of causing widespread casualties and suffering among civilians.

The crown prince earlier Friday presided at a China-Saudi cooperation forum that concluded with agreements on cooperation in fields ranging from petroleum and the chemical industry to investment, renewable energy and counter-terrorism. Saudi Arabia is one of China's top crude oil suppliers and an important market for its exports, including military drones.

Prince Mohammed also pledged Saudi Arabia's backing for China's gargantuan "belt and road" infrastructure project, saying he was willing to link it with the kingdom's Vision 2030 plans— a blueprint put forth by the crown prince to wean the kingdom off its reliance on oil, particularly as sustainable sources of energy become cheaper and more popular.

The Crown Prince's visit follows trips to India and Pakistan, which send millions of laborers to Saudi Arabia and are seeking closer economic ties. He is also due to visit industrial powerhouse South Korea on his Asian tour.

China has refrained from faulting Saudi Arabia over issues such as the war or killing of the journalist, in keeping with its long-held tradition of non-interference in other countries' affairs.

For its part, Saudi Arabia has avoided criticizing China's authoritarian communist government over its treatment of its Muslim minority groups as part of a wide-ranging crackdown on religion and minority languages that includes the detention of an estimated 1 million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims in internment camps.

That's despite the ruling Al Saud family's image of itself as the defender of Muslims across the world and protector of Islam's two holiest shrines.

The hush-hush approach reflects how China and Saudi Arabia have grown close over the past decade based on complementary economic interests, said Michael Clarke of Australian National University's National Security College.

"Basically, in the Saudi case there seem to be very clear incentives for it to not rock the boat in service of the Uighur issue," Clarke said.

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