Although distant neighbors, China and Arab Gulf states have an ancient relationship that could be traced back around 2,000 years. During the last decade in particular, relations between China and the Arab states have witnessed substantial progress, with cooperation expanding into various fields. With Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent state visit to Saudi Arabia – and attendance at the China-Arab Summit and China-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit – relations between China and Arab states will become even closer.
The Foundations of China-Arab Relations
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, friendship between China and Arab states has been constructed upon a shared campaign against imperialism and colonialism. On the one hand, China endorsed Arab people’s rights to choose their own economic and political path. For example, China supported Egypt in 1956 to resist invasions from Britain, France, and Israel, and supported Lebanon against interventions from the United States in 1958. China has also been strongly supporting Palestine’s nationhood ever since the 1960s. On the other hand, Arab states supported the PRC claiming China’s permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council in 1971, and many Arab states endorsed normalizations of diplomatic ties with China from the 1950s to 1970s.
From the late 1970s, new opportunities emerge for bilateral cooperation between China and Arab nations. Slowly but steadily, during the past four decades, China accelerated its development policy and has become the world’s second-largest economy. With its rapidly growing industrial capabilities and expanding market, China attracts more and more Arab businessmen to seek cooperation. “Made in China” products flooded the markets of Arab states, while the connections between China and Arab states strengthened.
During the past two decades, Saudi Arabia has become the leading state in both the Arab world and the Islamic world more broadly. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia’s political influence in the Middle East is increasingly important, and Riyadh’s voice is heard and respected on regional issues, including the Syria crisis, Israel-Palestine peace process, Yemen civil war, Lebanon internal politics, and Iraq’s political crisis. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia keeps positive ties with nearly all Arab states, while Riyadh’s financial support become vital to political stability in Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, and many other Arab states.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and China have witnessed remarkable progress during the past decade, while the cooperative areas between the two sides are strongly expanded and widened beyond their traditional supplier-customer relationship regarding Saudi oil. When China’s Belt and Road Initiative met Saudi Arabia’s “2030 Vision,” the friendship between China and Saudi Arabia was further deepened.
Given China’s growing market demands and economy, the geographic importance of Arab states is more and more critical for Beijing. Of the four main shipping chokepoints impacting Chinese trade – namely Gibraltar, Malacca, Hormuz, and Bal el Mandab – two are in the Arab world. Nearly half of China’s oil and gas imports transit through the Strait of Hormuz, while Bab el Mandab is an important channel for China’s exports to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe and oil imports from Algeria, Libya, and Sudan.
During the past decade, mainly motivated by the Belt and Road Initiative, new cooperation mechanisms have been established by China and Arab states. At the bilateral level, China established comprehensive strategic partnerships with Algeria and Egypt in 2014, with Saudi Arabia in 2016, and with the UAE in 2016. China established strategic partnerships with Qatar in 2014, Iraq in 2015, Morocco in 2016, and with Oman and Kuwait in 2018. As of January 2022, 20 Arab states had signed cooperative agreements with China under the Belt and Road Initiative in various fields covering energy, investment, trade, finance, infrastructure, and high-tech.
At the multilateral level, China and Arab states established the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in 2004 and the China-Arab States Expo in 2013. In 2018, the Declaration of Action on China-Arab States Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative was signed by China and Arab states at the 8th Ministerial Meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, which directed the cooperation between China and Arab states.
During the past decade, China has become deeply involved in local projects of Arab states. The China-Egypt TEDA Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone, the China-Oman Industrial Park, and the China-UAE Industrial Capacity Cooperation Demonstration Park are major examples.
In the recent years, China and the Arab states have expanded their cooperation into new fields such as space technology and medical cooperation. China signed cooperative agreements with Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia to co-develop space and satellite technologies. In December 2021, China and Arab states signed the China-Arab States Plan for Satellites Navigation, which would be the foundation for China-Arab states space technology cooperation in the upcoming years. After the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020, China’s medical companies Sinopharm and Sinovac signed cooperative agreements with the UAE and Egypt to produce and store COVID-19 vaccines.
Xi’s Visit: New Momentum
In his visit to Saudi Arabia and meetings with Arab leaders last week, Xi opened a new chapter for the friendship between China and Arab states. First, new mechanism were established to enhance political ties between China and Arab states. During his visit, Xi met with leaders from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, and other Arab states. In these meetings, China reiterated its support to these Arab partners’ independent development paths, and both China and Arab states share their strong confidence toward international multilateralism.
Both China and Saudi Arabia agreed to upgrade their bilateral relations into a “Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership” and agreed to hold leaders’ meetings biannually. As the leader of the Arab world, Saudi Arabia’s closer ties with China suggest greater prospects for China-Arab relations in the future.
Second, the cooperative areas between China and Arab states will be expanded. In 2013, China put forward the Belt and Road Initiative, which is welcomed by Arab states. In June of 2014, Xi outlined the framework of “1+2+3” for China-Arab cooperation under the BRI, which takes energy cooperation as the core (the “1”), infrastructure construction and trade and investment facilitation as the two wings, and three high-tech and new tech fields of nuclear energy, space satellites, and new energy as the three breakthroughs. This has become the fundamental guideline for China to develop cooperation with the Arab states.
During Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia, China signed dozens of cooperative agreements covering energy, infrastructure, finance, education, technology, and other important fields with Arab leaders. With these newly signed agreements and MOUs, the future cooperation between China and Arab states would face new waves of opportunities.
Third, although some obstacles remain, China and Arab states are willing to jointly realize more cooperative achievements. During the past years, the China-Gulf Cooperation Council Free Trade Zone talks and the cross-border settlement of Saudi oil purchases with Chinese renminbi encountered difficulties. Although these issues remained unsolved, both China and Arab states express their strong confidence to enhance coordination and encourage cooperation in the future.
Meanwhile, the Middle East’s sensitive issues, such as the Iran nuclear issue, Syrian crisis, Israel-Palestine peace, and Iran-UAE islands dispute were also mentioned in the official documents published jointly between China and Arab states. Through these statements and documents, China and Arab states successfully built their consensus toward the future.
Both the Chinese and the Arab nations proudly claim descent from splendid civilizations, and both have experienced setbacks and humiliations in the changing modern times. Therefore, national rejuvenation has become the goal of both the Chinese and Arabian peoples. It is no coincidence that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince took the opportunity of the China-Arab States summit to “assure the whole world that the Arabs will, once more, compete for progress and renaissance.”
China and Arab nations under the cooperative direction of the New Silk Road are seeking to realize both the Chinese dream and Arab revitalization.