Chinese President Xi Jinping has commenced a three-nation Middle Eastern tour with a visit to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, seeking closer military, political and economic ties with the region.

Xi is the first Chinese head of state to visit Saudi Arabia in seven years. He will also travel to Egypt and Iran later this week. China is the largest importer of crude oil from both Saudi Arabia and Iran, who are currently in a bitter dispute over Riyadh’s execution of a Shia cleric. The value of oil exports from the kingdom to China exceed Iranian exports by almost double, according to China’s Administration of Customs.

King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (left); President Xi Jinping (right). Photo: CPC News.

China’s official Xinhua news agency said that the president would play an active role in easing tensions between the two regional rivals. Xi said: “Since China and Saudi Arabia forged diplomatic ties 26 years ago, our relationship has developed by leaps and bounds, with mutual political trust deepening continuously and rich results in cooperation in various fields.”

“I believe that my visit will be a friendly trip with fruitful achievements,” he added.

While Iran has enjoyed a stable demand for oil over the years, it is uncertain whether the relationship will be affected by the recent lifting of international sanctions related to its nuclear programme.

Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Iran earlier this month in protest at the storming of its embassy in Tehran by a crowd angered by the killing of a Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

During his two-day state visit to Riyadh, Xi is scheduled to hold summit talks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to discuss a comprehensive strategic partnership and to open the Yasref oil refinery, a joint venture between Saudi Aramco and China’s Sinopec.

He will also meet chiefs of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. After Saudi Arabia, he will head to Egypt for two days on Wednesday night before arriving in Iran.

In Egypt, Xi is set to meet President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and deliver a speech at the Arab League headquarters on China policy in the Middle East.