China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) stands as the most prominent example of the pivotal shift in Chinese foreign policy from Deng Xiaoping’s “bide and hide” philosophy to the current ambitious endeavours. The BRI is a titanic project focused on increasing connectivity by opening up avenues for diplomatic and economic activity, thereby cementing trade and commercial ties between China and partner countries.
The initiative encompasses both land-based and maritime components which are meant to be conducted concurrently. The former apparatus includes roads, railways and pipelines while the latter is comprised of ports and coastline development. The Chinese model of south-south cooperation ensures that not only will Beijing profit from sustained development but the associate country will also reap benefits.
Over the past few years, China has substantially increased its economic and diplomatic dialogue with countries in the Middle East. In large part, Chinese investment in the Middle East particularly focuses on energy, infrastructure, construction, agriculture and finance. Both sides have mutual interests in integrating the BRI into national regeneration schemes, such as Saudi Vision 2030, UAE Vision 2021, Jordan 2025, Turkey’s Middle Corridor and Kuwait’s Vision 2035.
The Middle East is important for the BRI primarily because of its location; not only is it at the crossroads of three continents — Asia, Africa and Europe — but also at the junction of five seas: the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. Moreover, the region adjoins the critical maritime routes of the Bosphorus, Dardanelles, Bab El-Mandeb Strait and the Strait of Hormuz.
By early 2020, China had signed up more than two hundred BRI collaborations. The more than cordial welcome afforded by participating countries is in itself evidence of the opportunities that the initiative offers in terms of accelerated economic development through diversification. Furthermore, China’s constructive collaboration means that Beijing refrains from political involvement and instead builds its policies upon pragmatism. An example of this is the way that China maintains a balanced position in the ongoing Saudi-Iran conflict. Thus, BRI epitomises a new concept of regional security, based on all-inclusive development, as opposed to the Western prototype which is essentially premised on mitigating risks through democratisation backed by military intervention.
In the case of the Middle East states, their ports and industrial parks have been at the heart of cooperation with China. This can be illustrated by the UAE’s Khalifa Port, Oman’s Duqm Port, Saudi Arabia’s Jizan Port, and Egypt’s Port Said. In terms of construction contracts for Chinese companies, Qatar’s Lusail Stadium and the Haramain High-Speed Railway in Saudi Arabia are good examples. Furthermore, Chinese enterprises are likely to play crucial roles in the rehabilitation and reconstruction of war-torn countries such as Syria and Iraq.
In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in trade between China and the Middle East. In 2018-2019 alone, trade volume increased by 77 per cent. It should also be noted that the energy sector remains the substratum of China’s associations with the region. From 2013 to 2019 over 56 per cent of Chinese investments, amounting to $75 billion in the form of projects, were energy-related. This trajectory is anticipated to continue in the future with the International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasting that China will duplicate its oil imports from the Middle East by the year 2035.
The China-Iran deal is the most recent of Chinese investments. The $400 billion deal includes projects in energy, infrastructure, defence cooperation, intelligence sharing, and rebated oil imports to China from Iran. It is important to highlight that once Iran becomes part and parcel of BRI, it will impair US influence in the Middle East, which might trigger a harsh response from Washington. Already, the latest US sanctions in the form of the Caesar Act put an end to any country’s economic dealings with the Syrian regime. This will, for example, affect the 2015 agreement between the Syrian Ministry of Communications and China’s Huawei Company.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has proved to be an opportunity for both China and the Middle East countries to showcase solidarity with each other. The help in the form of medical supplies provided by the Gulf States to China was later reciprocated by the latter when the virus spread in the Middle East.
Falling oil prices together with an economic downturn could affect the implementation of BRI projects in the region, albeit not for long. That said, the Middle East has diverse complexities each with religious, ethnic and humanitarian undertones. All will no doubt play a critical role in not only shaping BRI but also the security, economic and cultural exchanges which will be part of the Chinese projects.