China & The Middle East: The Silk Road Returning With A Modern Twist

For centuries China and the Middle East have been connected through the long winding silk road, but it seems like history is about to repeat itself. The Asian country is making moves within the region to reintroduce the once prosperous trade route under a new name.

A Short History

But first, let’s talk about what the original silk road was; imagine a web of roads, caravans, and routes covering deserts, carving through mountains, and crossing rivers to connect the rich cities in China and East Asia to the Middle East and beyond. This network of roads lasted for quite a while too, all the way back from the second century BC to the mid-15th century AD. 

It was highly influential as it didn’t just help the trade industry at the time but also the flow of knowledge and information. This includes the spread of religions, early warnings of incoming military invasions, and even the spread of the black plague due to trading with diseased locations in Europe.

Now, think of what the silk road would look like today; that’s the dream China is working towards as it nestles in the Middle East, forming deals and strengthening relations, creating the perfect climate for the reintroduction of a new silk road.

What Is This New Version Of The Silk Road?

This new version of the silk road is called the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), which is a melding between two previous strategies, the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road.” The project is an ambitious one, to say the least; it was first conceived in 2013 and would later be incorporated into the Chinese constitution in 2017 with the hopes of its completion in 2049. According to the Xinhua news agency, the initiative is, “a bid to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future.” 

Xinhua news agency also stated that In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated, “the programs of development will be open and inclusive, not exclusive. They will be a real chorus comprising all countries along the routes, not a solo for China itself.” 

How Does The Middle East Come Into Play Here?

The interconnection between East and West is the main goal here, and as the project took shape, China found willing partners in the Middle East; this was the start of a fruitful relationship as both sides looked to each other for beneficial solutions.

China was and is looking for oil to help its ever-growing industrial economy, while Gulf countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia were looking for solutions to diversify their sources of income and move away from a reliance on oil.

This relationship only flourished as time went by as the East Asian country decided to invest in almost every country in the region, becoming a powerhouse in the area.

How & Why is China Investing in The Middle East?

With the Syrian revolution in 2011 which led to civil war, then battles against ISIS terrorists, the country was left in ruins. This was taken as an opportunity for China to land a helping hand with stipulations; in return for Chinese companies aiding in reconstruction, including rebuilding ports, railway tracks, and roads, Syria would participate in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Russia, Saudia Arabia, and Iraq are the three largest oil exporters to China, and since oil is an important factor for China’s industrial economy, it’s focusing its efforts on establishing good relations with all three countries. This led to Iraq becoming a key partner to work with and a crucial place to invest within the region. Hence why in 2021, China invested $10.5 billion in BRI-related and energy infrastructure projects In Iraq; as a way to make sure its third-biggest source of oil is secure.

Regarding Egypt, China’s $18 billion investments varied, as it worked with the African country on several infrastructure projects, including the ambitious New Administrative Capital in Egypt’s eastern desert. Both China and Egypt have signed large-scale economic agreements to solidify their partnership and prove they’re serious about this relationship. An important point is that Egypt is a vital part of China’s initiative since it’s a key part of the maritime road, which passes through Egypt’s Suez Canal to reach Europe and the Mediterranean sea.

China and the Gulf states also saw contractural agreements and investments, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE using them to create projects that would help diversify their economy to push for a future where they’re not reliant on oil as their primary source of income. As part of the Maritime Silk Road in the BRI, China also collaborated with the Gulf countries along with others in the Arabian gulf to improve their ports as they would be vital stops in the region, on the way to Egypt before heading to the Mediterranean.

Overall, China was successful in making 21 Arab countries join the BRI initiative, with the hopes of connecting the East to the West. However, We’re going to have to wait and see how these agreements and collaborative efforts shape the future of the region, hopefully for the better.

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