As a consequence of the Chinese brokered talks in Beijing, Saudi Arabia and Iran have announced to reopen of embassies after 7 years of formal diplomatic boycott. Both sides which are also considered regional arch-rivals have agreed to reactivate the 2001 cooperation Accord. Recently, the Saudi finance minister has also stated that the kingdom can quickly start investments in Iran.
There are positive developments that have the potential to ameliorate regional dynamics and also improve China’s perception of the Middle East.
This, however, is not the first instance where China’s diplomatic contributions have been crucial in reducing regional quagmires. China has emerged, perhaps, as the only extra-regional power that shares conducive relations with all major Middle Eastern states. China also played a constructive role during the JCPOA episode when it urged Tehran to make compromises in the P5+1 negotiations and, in turn, assured the latter of large-scale investments. The JCPOA, although no longer in place, was a great leap forward given the fact that dialogue and negotiations have never been common between the US and Iran. Recently, President Xi Jinping also reassured his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi of China’s eagerness to resume the nuclear deal and settle Iran’s nuclear issue. Besides diplomacy, China has also been crucial to the infrastructural development of the Middle East.
China, under the Belt and Road Initiative, enacted the 1+2+3 cooperation strategy which reflected the East-Asian power’s constructive intent in the region. Sino-Persian Gulf trade volume also sky-rocketed to $197 Billion in 2017, as a result. China is the largest foreign investor in Iran and more than 100 Chinese companies are registered in the country. Also, as aforementioned, China’s cooperation is not limited to any specific Middle Eastern state rather, on his 2016 visit to Saudi Arabia, President Xi remotely started a $10 billion oil refinery on the Red Sea coast, jointly owned by Sinopec and Aramco.
Earlier, in 2004, Fujian Refining and Petrochemical Company (FREP) was established as a joint venture between Sinopec (50 percent shares), ARAMCO (25 percent shares), and ExxonMobil (25 percent shares). In 2008, the Tianjin Petrochemical industry was also established which was jointly owned by Sinopec and SABIC. Similarly, China Railway Engineering was awarded the contract, worth $1.8 billion, to construct a high-speed railway connecting the holy city of Mecca to Medina, in 2009. On his visit to the Kingdom for the China-Arab Summit in 2022, Xi Jinping signed a comprehensive strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia.
China has developed stronger ties with multiple Middle Eastern states and has signed comprehensive strategic partnerships with Qatar, Oman, Morocco, Kuwait, Jordan, Iraq, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria, Egypt, etc. Such partnerships tend to provide, much-needed, economic security to the regional states in an, otherwise, unconducive security environment. The Chinese National Pipeline Company (CNPC) built the 424 km long Habshan-Fujairah oil pipeline, in 2012, from Abu Dhabi to the Gulf of Oman which has an estimated capacity of carrying 75 million tons of Oil. It is also expected that after the completion of BRI, the Middle East will experience a 37.87% increase in trade flows to Europe and Central Asia. Moreover, China’s humanitarian assistance has helped alleviate the suffering of millions of people affected by crises in the region.
Such steps are highly rewarding for a war-torn region like the Middle East and can be termed as one major reason why so many regional states appear eager to cooperate with China. Evidence of this is the recent (Jan 10) visit of Foreign Ministers of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, and the Secretary General of the GCC to Jiangsu, the major purpose of which was to deepen ties with China. China’s growing influence in the Middle East which is a result of the country’s consistent regional policies does appear like a tilt towards the East. However, this must not be taken by States such as the US, with politico-strategic interests in the region, as a challenge to their influence.
China’s growing influence in the Middle East which is a result of the country’s consistent regional policies does appear like a tilt towards the East.
The Middle East has already suffered a great deal due to international rivalries and proxy wars. The region has continually been a battleground for international powers for decades. As a result, not only natives but the world, as a whole, has suffered from terrorism. Middle Eastern states such as Syria are considered to be breeding grounds for terrorism, narcotics, and menaces of such nature. It is, thus, important for Global powers to seize the opportunity and collaborate in order to transform the Middle East into a stable, peaceful region as failure to do so would be counter-productive and only exacerbate the regional and international situation.
Ammar Hassan Sajjad is an International Relations Scholar and a visiting faculty member at the International Islamic University Islamabad. The author tweets @AmmarHS96