What does China's changing relationship with the Arab world mean for the Middle East?

Ties once focused on commerce and trade are broadening to include pressing political issues such as the war in Gaza and the occupation of Palestine

President Sheikh Mohamed and China’s President Xi Jinping are joined by Bahrain's King Hamad, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and other delegations at the China-Arab States Co-operation Forum in Beijing on Thursday. Reuters
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“War should not continue indefinitely; justice should not be absent forever.” These words from Chinese President Xi Jinping, delivered at the China-Arab States Co-operation Forum in Beijing on Thursday, not only align with the position of the many senior Arab leaders in attendance, but will resonate with millions of people across the Middle East appalled at the continuing bloodshed in Palestine.

As Mr Xi reaffirmed China’s support for Palestine to be granted UN membership, he added that his country would “work with the Arab side as good partners to make our relations a model for maintaining world peace and stability”. These statements reflect the increasing recognition of the centrality of ending the occupation of Palestine to maintain global peace as well as the evolving nature of China’s relationship with the Arab world.

It is a relationship with some very deep roots, dating back about 2,000 years to the early days of the Silk Road. Across the centuries, these long-standing ties were characterised primarily by trade and commerce. Chinese goods such as porcelain, silk and pottery were in high demand in the Muslim and Arab worlds. In return, exports from this region to China included perfumes, frankincense and oud. In the modern era, this economic relationship retains its importance.

Energy exports remain a critical piece of the Sino-Arabian dynamic. According to the Atlantic Council, the GCC countries alone exported more than 210 million tonnes of crude oil to China in 2022, more than double its 2014 shipments. When China launched its Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, this logistical network led to Beijing increasing its investments in projects across many Arab countries. In 2022, less than a decade after the Belt and Road project began, consultancy Oliver Wyman said total trade between China and the Mena region had reached $505 billion – a 76 per cent increase in 10 years.

Non-oil trade between China and many Middle East countries is also notable. According to state news agency Wam, last year, the UAE's non-oil trade with China – the Emirates’ top non-oil trade partner - reached Dh296 billion ($81 billion), a 4.2 per cent increase from 2022.

But the statements coming from the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse this week, where President Sheikh Mohamed was joined by other Arab leaders such as Tunisian President Kais Saied, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Bahrain's King Hamad, show that this relationship has grown to include pressing political issues such as the war in Gaza and the occupation of Palestine.

Speaking in Beijing, Sheikh Mohamed said the Gaza conflict highlighted the urgent need to pursue a just and comprehensive peace in the region based on the two-state solution. For his part, Mr Xi called for an international peace conference focused on the war and promised more aid for the Palestinians.

It is the latest example of China’s increasingly vocal position in global mediation and bridge-building. Its role in facilitating last year’s rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran was an important moment to reflect on its importance in Middle Eastern affairs. Its February 2023 10-point peace plan to end the war in Ukraine is another example of Beijing’s growing assertiveness in international mediation efforts.

More broadly, this week’s China-Arab summit is another example, along with that of an expanded bloc of Brics nations, which shows the world is increasingly being shaped not by one superpower alone but by several, with input from emerging economic powerhouses. The fact that the Arab delegations in Beijing this week consisted of heads of state and foreign ministers highlighted the significance of the meetings.

China is not alone in expanding and developing its ties with the region. As Asia continues to rise economically and politically, India and Indonesia are examples of two other major countries with historic links to the Middle East that are also set expand ties in the region in a fast changing, multipolar world.

Published: May 31, 2024, 3:00 AM
Updated: June 01, 2024, 10:39 AM