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The Riyadh Handshake and the Race for Progress

The Riyadh Handshake and the Race for Progress

Monday, 12 December, 2022 - 09:00
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

Over the past six years, my profession has allowed me to bear witness to significant handshakes in Saudi Arabia.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s handshake with US President Donald Trump that was followed by the American-Gulf and American-Arab summits. Mohammed bin Salman’s handshake with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The fist bump between the Crown Prince and US President Joe Biden that was followed by the American-Saudi summit and the American-Gulf summit with the participation of Egypt, Jordan and Egypt.

My profession also allowed me to witness Mohammed bin Salman’s handshakes during his trips abroad that were distinguished by their calculated diplomacy.

The foreign visits have bolstered relations with Moscow, Washington, Beijing, New Delhi and Tokyo. They were visits aimed at exploring opportunities for greater cooperation and building partnerships based on mutual interests and respect and non-interference in internal affairs.

In spite of these handshakes, I sensed that the recent handshake between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh was extraordinary for Saudi, Chinese and international reasons.

As a journalist, I sensed that I was witnessing a handshake that will go down in history. It was a strong handshake that was heavy with meaning and symbolism. The leader of Mao Zedong’s party was shaking the hand of the heir of the founder, King Abdulaziz, and the school of King Salman bin Abdulaziz.

Two men from different cultures, heritages and generations, each representing a turning point in the history of their countries. The first is spearheading the “Chinese dream” and the other the “Saudi dream”. The handshake took place between two renaissances and their guardians.

Going by the numbers, one can say that the situation in China today is much better than the way it was when Xi came to power. Again, going by the numbers, one can also say that the situation in Saudi Arabia is better today than when Mohammed bin Salman lit the spark of the vast transformation that is based on the economy and that goes beyond it.

The handshake set a date on the path towards progress and the future. The date is the starting point where the Belt and Road and Vision 2030 converge.

It is a partnership in a dream that seeks to raise the living conditions of the citizens and achieve prosperity and stability. It is a partnership in reaping the fruits of technology, innovation, competition and investing in health and education, combating pandemics and the climate crisis. It is a partnership in trade and cultural exchange and bridging the gap between two approaches to regional and international affairs.

It is a deep handshake that includes the exchange of expertise and that paves the way for Saudi investments and exports to the “world’s factory” and paves the way for Chinese companies to take part in the massive transformation taking place in Saudi Arabia.

Given Saudi Arabia’s geographic location and ongoing transformation, it can serve as a bridge and gateway for China to the Arab world and Middle East.

The handshake gave off the sense of international responsibility and emphasis on the dialogue between civilizations, peaceful resolution of conflicts, respect for the right to be different, avoiding confrontation, and underscoring countries’ right to sovereignty and respecting their heritage, and their political and development choices. It paves the way for hope that secures the stability of the global economy and supply chains.

The Chinese-Saudi handshake was the product of a deep reading of the changes taking place in the world, most notably in wake of the war in Ukraine and the impending changes in the world’s club of major powers where political weight cannot be separated from economic power.

This reading demanded an expansion of relations and partnerships in a way that ensures that deep relationships can be forged with different parties. In such a world of interconnected interests, boycotts are not a wise approach. Relations between nations, similar to relations between peoples, need constant maintenance that are provided by the fine art of listening to the concerns and taking into consideration the interests of the other.

Mohammed bin Salman is aware of how interconnected peoples from around the world have become due to globalization in what was once called the “global village.” He realizes the connection between lasting prosperity and lasting stability in the region and world. That is why he wanted the Chinese-Saudi handshake to be coupled with Chinese-Gulf and Chinese-Arab handshakes and that is what happened.

The Chinese-Arab summit was indeed unique. The partners found themselves confronted with two different experiences in progress. The first, Chinese, the second, Saudi. The partners started to realize that stalling and delays will only deepen and complicate problems. They started to realize the need to take difficult decisions because the only path that leads to the future is the one of reform.

Reform means building institutions and combating corruption that devours countries. Reform means modernizing laws and education and joining the path of rapid technological progress. Reform means building international relations that are based on supporting development, exchanging expertise and joining a changing world and its achievements and conditions.

The participants sensed that the state can control its fate if it listened well to its people, especially the young generations. Devastated Arab countries can no longer send their youths in droves in “death boats”. It is no longer acceptable to flounder in militia and proxy wars on behalf of parties near and far.

The participants started to realize how easy it was to achieve rapprochement with China. It does not interfere in their internal affairs, nor does it try to impose its own model. It speaks a language of mutual interests and does not offer itself as a charity. Moreover, Xi Jinping broke with his usual terse style, and spoke at length to underscore his country’s support to the two-state solution and the right of Arab countries to security and stability, away from foreign meddling.

Several Arabs leaders positively recalled the Silk Road and praised the Belt and Road initiative. Embarking on these roads starts with reform and overcoming the fear of change. They are not demanded to copy any successful experience because experiences have their own conditions and specific characteristics. But good management can make up for the lack of natural resources, and this has been shown in many successful experiences from around the world.

The Chinese experience urges the need to take the path of reform. So does the Saudi experience. Arab backwardness is not an inescapable fate. The shaping of the future begins by abandoning modest or hesitant steps and racing against time to make up for the time that was lost and joining those who have turned slumber into opportunity.

The “Chinese dream” was not easy, neither was the “Saudi dream”. The Arab dream is possible if the will is there.

Mohammed bin Salman notably concluded the summit by declaring: “We stress to the world that the Arabs will compete for progress and renaissance once again and we will prove it every day.”

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