The Saudi King and the Chinese President in Beijing - March 2017 (AFP)

The Chinese Role in the Middle East


Tue, 22-11-2022 06:10 PM, Aden

Dr. Eman Zahran (South24) 

Chinese diplomacy has always been based on strengthening and enhancing the long-term friendship between China and Middle Eastern states. Instead of forging a political or security alliance, China sought to establish various and tangled communication networks across all the region’s states governed by geopolitical and economic considerations which carry similarities with Beijing’s foreign policy determinants towards the region. This includes counterterrorism, religious extremism, or the vast economic and trade opportunities provided by the region to China which is considered the biggest trade partner with the Middle Eastern countries. This is especially related to their interest in developing and enhancing the Chinese global initiative known as the "Belt and Road". This stirs questions about the features of the Chinese role in the Middle East, what can be provided by Beijing regarding the paths of its moves in the region, and the outcome of the three expected summits in addition to the possible results of the Chinese President’s tour in the region.
Political transformations 

There are a number of specific transformations in the features of Beijing's strategy towards the Arab region. The foundations of these transformations go back to 2016 as illustrated below [1]:
1- The first visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Middle Eastern states (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, and the UAE) with their related indicators and vital contents. This followed the growing economic involvement in the region. This trip came to send a clear message to the region’s states to express their importance to China. 
2- Beijing issued three official documents that determined the path of its moves toward the Middle Eastern states. The first one is known as “the Vision and Measures Plan” in 2015. It included its vision for the “Belt and Road” initiative and the maritime “Silk Road'' in the 21st Century. The second one was represented in releasing an Arab policy paper on Jan 13st 2016 entitled the “Chinese Policy Document Towards the Arab States'' which summarizes China's vision for the region. One of the main issues included in this paper is the formation of the so-called Cooperation Equation (1+2+3) in which the number "1" represents energy as being a main source of interest. The number “2” represents infrastructure, trade, and investment while “3” refers to the cooperation in the fields of nuclear energy, satellite, and new power resources. The third document is the Sino-Arab Executive Declaration in 2018. [2]

It is worth mentioning that the Chinese strategy in the Middle East is summarized in a number of principles that govern Beijing’s moves in the region. This is regarding the following points [3]:
1- One of the most comprehensive principles of Chinese foreign policy is “Non-interference” in internal affairs. Beijing is keen on not being seen as a country that interferes in the local affairs of the Middle Eastern states or has clear biased positions regarding some regional matters that have controversial nature.

2- China supports the stability of the Middle Eastern states and the unity of the “national state”. This is the lesson it learned after its economic interests in Libya were endangered because it allowed UN SC Resolution no 1970 to pass. The latter paved the way for Western interference in Libya which ended with the change of the regime of former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. 

3- China is not interested in the nature of the ruling political regimes in the region and does not seek to promote its ideology abroad. It agrees with several states in the region in the vision towards liberal and democratic calls as being tools related to the Western states. 
4- Securing the maximum amount of security stability as a basic requirement of economic development. This enables it to launch programs for roads, railways, ports, communication systems, and free trade cities amid a stable security environment. China delivered economic aid to develop the capabilities of the region’s states for guaranteeing stability amounting to 300 million US$ according to the Sino-Arab Executive Declaration as part of the “Belt and Road” initiative in 2018. 
Joint summits 

In 2012, during his speech in the Fifth Session of the Ministerial Meeting of the Chinese-Arab States Cooperation Forum, the Arab League Secretary-General said: “It is the time to look at the possibility of holding a Chinese-Arab summit to reflect the depth and the extent of the relationship development between the two parties and their promising horizons". This is the basis of the arrangements for the Arab-Chinese summit which is the first of its kind according to the aforementioned Beijing’s principles. The KSA is the host state of the summit and this carries specific indications amid a number of global political, economic, and security transformations, foremost of which include the following points: 
1- Reshaping the path of the Chinese relationships with the Arab regional bloc in a more expanded way, regarding the centrality of the expected summit under the umbrella of the Arab League. 
2- Redrawing the Chinese influence by activating the economic and political tools for expanding and gaining more new geopolitical areas in the Middle East. 

3- The Chinese positioning desire in the Middle East following the US withdrawal from the region. This hypothesis is supported by a number of indicators, the first of which [4] is the increase in the mutual commercial relationships between Beijing and the region's states. The second is the latter's participation in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. The third indicator is Beijing's cautious involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The fourth one is the enhancement of Chinese security contributions in the Middle East. For example, China sent more than 1800 soldiers in the UN peacekeeping missions in the Middle East as of 2020. The fifth one is China's keenness on not paying attention to the human rights issue. Furthermore, it has increased military cooperation with the majority of the region's states. 

4- The equation of the Russian-Ukrainian war ramifications and their current and expected transformations at different political and economic levels relatively lead to redirecting the foreign agenda to new geopolitical areas. This is related to the "displacement outward" principle and the flexible entanglement with possible allies.  
It is worth mentioning that most Arab polls indicate that China is currently the most popular international power in the Middle East and North Africa. The countries of the region prefer the diversification of allies and building a network of different political, economic, and security relationships with international forces, the foremost of which is China. [5] 
Accordingly, there are three determinants which constitute the basic reference of the Chinese-Middle Eastern mutual moves and what can be structured in light of the expected Arab-Gulf summits. This includes the following points:

1- The first determinant is represented in the growing need of China to meet its energy needs. This is as part of the external move to balance the direct negative impact of the Russian-Ukrainian war as Beijing imports about 70% of its oil consumption from the Gulf region. 

2- The second determinant is related to the US foreign policy towards the Middle East in the era of the Democratic President Joe Biden based upon reducing the US involvement in the region which began with the dramatic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent tactical exit from Iraq. This is in addition to Washington's divergent and apathetic positions towards the region's political and security issues. 

3- The third determinant directly reflects the vision and perceptions of the Middle Eastern states regarding their economic future. This is amid the laxity of the current measures to recover from the negative repercussions of Covid19 pandemic on their emerging economies. Moreover, the region’s states' attempt to contain the direct economic impact of the Russian-Ukrainian war relatively pushes for activating the policies of "diversifying allies" and "attracting actors", especially Beijing. 

Dr. Eman Zahran

Egyptian researcher, specialized in international relations and regional security


1- "Strategics", the Chinese Strategy in the Middle East from an Analytical Perspective.


2- The Sino-Arab Executive Declaration related to the "Belt and Road' Initiative, the Arab-Chinese Cooperation Forum.


3- "Strategics", the Chinese Strategy in the Middle East from an Analytical Perspective.


4- Danielle Pletka and Dan Blumenthal, “China Won’t Replace the U.S. in the Middle East”, Foreign Policy


5- Michael Rubin: Is it the Time of China in the Middle East and North Africa? The Arab Barometer.

ChinaSaudi ArabiaChinese policySilk road