China’s Risky Gamble to Become a Major Player in the Middle East and North Africa

A China in Africa Podcast

Chinese president Xi Jinping’s three-country tour of the Middle East and North Africa offers yet another example of Beijing’s expanding drive for increased global influence. During his first visit to the region, Xi traveled to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran where he inserted his government into the mix of some of the world’s most volatile regions.

That Xi chose to visit these countries for his first overseas trip of the year, a highly symbolic act that is closely watched by Chinese foreign policy observers, is not surprising given China’s increased dependence on oil from the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Experts contend, though, that there was much more to the trip than the usual cash-for-resources tours that Chinese leaders often do elsewhere in Africa. In this instance, there’s a lot more at stake.

One Belt, One Road

Both Egypt and Iran are critical pieces in China’s rapidly evolving global trading strategy that aims to revive the ancient silk road that once connected Persia with China. Known commonly as One Belt, One Road (OBOR), China hopes to link its economy with markets in Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa through expansive new maritime routes, international rail lines, and other overland connections. If successful, OBOR promises to bring billions of dollars in Chinese development funds to these countries and further integrate them into China’s trading orbit.

A Region in Flux

Xi’s visit also coincides with a series of dramatic power shifts in the region that provides a unique opportunity for Beijing to expand its influence in the region. Saudi Arabia’s growing alienation from the United States, a once unshakable alliance, over Washington’s rapprochement with Iran allowed for Xi to receive a much warmer welcome in Riyadh than he would have just a few years ago. Separately, across the Persian Gulf in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed his eagerness for building a deeper relationship with China to serve as a potential counterweight to the United States. Similarly, in Egypt, president Abdul Fattah el-Sisi’s turbulent relationship with Washington no doubt contributed to his enthusiastic courtship of Chinese investment and development during Xi’s visit.

Risks Everywhere

While the strategic logic of China’s desire to broaden its reach in the Middle East and North Africa is obvious, the key question is whether or not Beijing is capable of successfully navigating the region’s volatile, often violent politics. This is new diplomatic terrain for the Chinese and the risk of policy missteps are very high. For now, the Chinese don’t bring much more to the table than money. If their people and big new investments get sucked into the sectarian conflicts that are ravaging the region, it will not be easy for China to extricate itself without suffering considerable losses (both human and financial).

Lina Benabdallah is a China-Africa scholar at the University of Florida’s Center for Africa Studies where she is pursuing her Ph.D. Lina’s research focuses on Chinese foreign and security policy in Africa and as a native Arab speaker from Algeria, she also closely follows China’s diplomatic activity in North Africa and the Arab world. Lina joins Eric and Cobus this week to discuss Xi’s trip and what it says about the current direction of Chinese foreign policy.