The new conflict between Israel and Hamas has made many international observers notice a fact that has actually been established for years. Namely, the influence of China in the Middle East. Beijing has long put down solid roots in the region, extensively developing its commercial and diplomatic presence.
Doing so, moreover, across the board. The historic friendship with Iran has not been an obstacle to deepening relations with Gulf countries. Nor even with Israel itself, moreover becoming its second largest trading partner after the United States.
This deepening of relations also comes through technology, with not insignificant strategic implications on precisely the two most crucial areas. Namely, artificial intelligence and microchips. That is, the two hubs on which China has long been engaged in a bitter contest with the United States, Saudi Arabia’s traditional ally.
Suffice it to say that in recent months King Abdullah University of Science and Technology has been collaborating with two Chinese universities, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Shenzhen Research Institute of Big Data, on the creation of an Arabic-language artificial intelligence system.
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Cooperation on AI and supercomputers
Under the leadership of Professor Jinchao Xu, the Saudi institute has launched AceGPT. The move is part of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to lead the regional development of artificial intelligence technology.
Together with the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf power is trying to compete with artificial intelligence companies and create models tailored to Arabic speakers. And to do so, it has chosen to cooperate with Beijing. Not a surprise, given the increasing emphasis on the Chinese side on cooperation in the digital field, within or without the Silk Road framework.
Collaboration between Saudi Arabia and China is also very strong in the field of research and development, as evidenced by the growing presence of Chinese academics in the university. Thus including 20 percent of students, 34 percent of post-doctoral researchers and 9 percent of faculty members.
Among them, according to the Financial Times, are those collaborating on the development of the Shaheen III supercomputer, which aims to provide 20 times the computing power of the existing system.
In September, Huawei (which is on a major revival spree) opened a cloud data center in the Saudi capital Riyadh in an effort to grow its online service offerings in the Middle East and North Africa. The cloud data center in the Saudi capital supports government services for the Saudi kingdom and plays a role in the development of intelligent Arabic language models. In February, Huawei said it would invest $400 million in Saudi Arabia’s cloud region over the next five years.
The “exchange” between chips and polysilicon
The United States is concerned about the transfer of technology between Saudi Arabia and China and has expanded export licensing requirements for artificial intelligence chips produced by Nvidia and Amd.
Thus adding barriers to acquisition by Chinese entities and thus to the creation of new generative artificial intelligence applications. Beijing knows that Riyadh can provide it with access to technologies it cannot reach elsewhere. As Western countries and Asian allies restrict access, starting with the Netherlands and Japan, the U.S. cannot go overboard with pressing a region like the Middle East, which it fears losing to China.
But cooperation between Beijing and Riyadh goes further, with investments in other areas as well. Saudi Arabia is currently in advanced talks to officially launch joint partnerships in large solar and wind projects.
In exchange for guaranteed Saudi technology transfer, China can secure the necessary capacity for polysilicon production. Another strategic junction in which, this time, China has a major advantageous position.
China is already Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner. And the balance is in Riyadh’s favor. 57 billion in exports versus 30.3 billion in imports. Saudi Arabia is also China’s top oil supplier. In 2022, Beijing shelled out 55 billion for 1.77 million barrels per day.
Saudi giant Aramco announced in recent months the construction of a $10 billion refinery in the northeast of the People’s Republic. Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman considers China a key partner in his Vision 2030 program and is seeking to engage Chinese companies in ambitious mega-projects designed to diversify the economy away from fossil fuels. These include the construction of the futuristic metropolis Neom. China is putting down roots in the region. So are integrated circuits.