The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the most significant developments in the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions and reliable foresight on future scenarios. Today we shed light on China’s latest involvement in the Middle East, which saw Beijing hosting the president of the Palestinian Authority and developing economic partnerships at the 10th Arab-China Business Conference.
China’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East are undergoing renewed momentum. The Asian country is currently hosting the President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas on a four-day visit. For Beijing, the high-profile trip is part of a broader effort to facilitate the resumption of peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israeli government. This ambitious goal comes in the wake of China’s recent success in mediating a détente between the two main geopolitical rivals of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Iran. More broadly, Chinese efforts to ease tensions in the Middle East demonstrate how its expanding economic clout has allowed it to play a more significant role in regional geopolitics. Despite this new high in Chinese mediation initiatives, however, the Israeli-Palestinian issue remains highly challenging. It also remains to be seen whether Israel, a staunch US ally, will allow Beijing to expand its role in mediation with the Palestinians. Diplomatic initiatives aside, China is a leading trading partner for the region. Just a few days after the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the kingdom hosted the 10th Arab-Chinese Business Conference in Riyadh, with several agreements between Saudi and Chinese firms signed in a new era of Arab-Chinese economic partnership.
Experts from the ISPI network react to the latest political and economic efforts of Chinese commitment to the Middle East and their implications.
Chinese presence in the Middle East reflects the absence of the United States
“China’s peace mediation efforts in the Middle East should not be exaggerated. While it did assist in brokering the recent agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it was the culmination of an ongoing two-year dialogue between the two countries. In contrast, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is virtually non-existent, hindered by internal conflicts that must be addressed for any meaningful discussions to occur. However, China can still play a mediatory role. In addition to its involvement with Saudi Arabia and Iran, China has acted as a bridge between the West and Iran during the JCPOA talks and during the Darfur crisis with Sudan. Notably, these mediations were already in progress and not initiated by China. Overall, speculation regarding Chinese mediation serves a strategic purpose, elevating China’s prominence while indirectly highlighting the lack of progress made by its American counterpart.”
Guy Burton, Adjunct Professor, Brussels School of Governance
The visit won’t have a major breakthrough, but its significance should not be understated
“The visit by the Palestinian Authority (PA) President Abbas to China is significant, as he aims to discuss and explore a possible Chinese mediatory role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over the past years, China has indicated its willingness to move from economic engagement to political processes in the Middle East. Its success in mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia pushed Beijing to explore other regional issues. Washington’s passive engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and China’s strategic objective to ensure protections for its vast investments in the Middle East triggered this desire for greater involvement. Still, it remains to be seen to what extent Beijing is ready to step in and if Washington will allow it to do so. Similarly, whether Israel will enable Beijing to replace its American ally is questionable. It will be difficult for China to present a peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since it will need to invest monumental efforts and time to become a key regional political actor. Having avoided MENA politics and security, China needs time to learn and will realize that it must coordinate its efforts with the EU and the US to succeed.”
Omar Ismail Shaban, Director, PalThink for Strategic Studies
China is taking chances with the Palestinians, but Washington is still Israel’s winning horse
“Traditionally, China has not played a significant role in the Middle East or diplomacy in the region. Still, since China launched its Global Security Initiative, we can expect to see more Chinese engagement. This will be a positive change for the Palestinians because they do not see the US as a fair mediator, and China is a strong actor with leverage in the UNSC. Israel, which has good economic relations with China but is aligned with the US and the Western camp, does not wish to see China expand its role in mediating with the Palestinians. This can drive a wedge between them, and Israel will seek to keep the US in a leadership role. The question will be whether the US will welcome China’s new role and the degree of influence China will have in such a process. This would be a negative development for Israel and lessen Israel’s bargaining power.”
Noa Shusterman, Senior Researcher, Director of the Palestinian and Regional Research Programs, MINDIsrael
Are China’s efforts in the MENA region just zero-sum games for Washington?
“Washington should avoid seeing all developments in the Middle East as zero-sum games. Too many US officials assume that everything which is good for China’s interests is automatically bad news for Washington. Beijing helping to ease tensions between Riyadh and Tehran can help stabilize the region. A period of Saudi-Iranian détente is important for the Saudi Vision 2030, and the US has interest in seeing the kingdom’s economic transformation succeed. As President Obama acknowledged, the Saudis and Iranians must “share the neighbourhood”, and it appears that the two nations are moving in that direction. Washington should not view this easing of tensions between Riyadh and Tehran as problematic just because China brokered the March 2023 agreement. US initiatives in the Middle East should encourage greater economic integration among the countries of the region, which will be beneficial to Saudi Arabia’s transformation and economic diversification away from oil.”
Giorgio Cafiero, CEO and Founder, Gulf State Analytics
Gulf and China: Partners in the MENA, competitors in Africa
“In the MENA region, the GCC states and China are developing economic partnerships, from energy to infrastructures and trade, just to cite a few. The Riyadh Declaration signed at the end of the 10th Arab-China Business Conference seeks to expand this pattern: the GCC states’ economic diversification programmes (known as “Visions”) are real collaboration drivers as these are complementary to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This has allowed the consolidation of a double economic penetration trend in post-uprisings Arab states: the first was by the GCC states in the early 2010s, and the second was by China since the mid-2010s. Conversely, the GCC states and China are subtle contenders in other regions, starting from Africa. Especially the Emiratis and the Chinese are, in fact, competitors for investments in maritime infrastructures, ports, and logistics hubs”.
Eleonora Ardemagni, Associate Research Fellow, ISPI