April 23, 2006

China’s Hu says ready to work for Mideast peace

By Andrew Hammond

RIYADH (Reuters) - Chinese President Hu Jintao told Saudi
Arabia on Sunday that the world's most populous country was
ready to help bring stability to the Middle East.

"The Middle East is a vital region in the world and there
will be no achievements and development in the world without a
stable Middle East," Hu said in the translated comments.

"China is ready to work with Saudi Arabia and other Arab
countries to strengthen peace and development in the Middle
East and to build a world of peace, stability and prosperity,"
he told Saudi Arabia's Shura council, an unelected legislature.

Hu is on a three-day visit to cement growing political and
economic ties with Saudi Arabia, which was China's top oil
supplier in 2005, providing 17.5 percent of its imports with
443,600 barrels per day (bpd).

After joining the World Trade Organization in December,
Saudi Arabia's protected but growing economy is also opening to
the outside world and the kingdom is eyeing new export
opportunities in Asia.

Hu is only the second foreign leader after French President
Jacques Chirac to address Saudi Arabia's quasi-parliament.

Some U.S. analysts have suggested that China wants to rival
U.S. influence in the Gulf region. Arab countries have
traditionally seen China as an ally in the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, where they view Washington as biased toward Israel.

Saudi Arabia has insisted that its growing ties with
Beijing are no threat to the United States.

The Chinese president alluded to the region's simmering
political problems, but offered no specific solutions.

"When the Cold War ended... many hot issues remained
without resolution, and new conflicts have caused more
instability," Hu said, in an apparent reference to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq
in 2003.

On Saturday Hu discussed those issues as well as the
stand-off over Iran's nuclear program with the Riyadh-based
head of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Abdul-Rahman
al-Attiya, Saudi media said.

Attiya said that China and the six-nation GCC could sign a
free-trade agreement by the end of the year. China also signed
cooperation agreements on oil, security, defense systems and
health, Saudi media said, but no details were available.

King Abdullah headed a large delegation to China in January
in a drive to develop Saudi Arabia's trade links with rising
Asian economies and diversify from traditional U.S. ties.

Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as an Islamic model state,
implementing Sharia law in the birthplace of Islam, once
regarded Communist China as a godless, revolutionary threat.

The two countries, which share authoritarian political
systems, established diplomatic ties in 1990.