World / China-Middle East

China's 'Belt and Road' initiative boosts Mideast development

(Xinhua) Updated: 2016-01-19 18:25

BEIJING - A new business hub widely known as Madinat al-Hareer, or Silk City, is expected to be completed by 2035 in northern Kuwait to serve as a new major stop on the ancient Silk Road trade route.

Featuring a 1,001-meter tall skyscraper in its masterplan, the Silk City would be co-developed by Kuwaiti and Chinese enterprises under China's "Belt and Road" initiative. The 36-km Sheikh Jaber Causeway project linking the Silk City with Kuwait City is already under construction.

China is also working closely with many other Middle East countries, such as Egypt, Qatar, and Oman, to speed up cooperation in infrastructure, manufacturing, among other fields.

With substantive investment in capital, personnel, technology and experience, Chinese enterprises in the Middle East are playing an important role in sustaining and upgrading the regional economy and facilitating social stability in the often conflict-ridden region.


Energy cooperation has been an important part of China's economic interactions with the Middle East as about half of China's oil imports come from the region.

But experts say that China's proposal of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road -- the "Belt and Road" initiative -- has provided a good opportunity to expand economic and trade cooperation between the two sides.

"There is a large deficit in infrastructure in many Middle East countries, as a result of sanctions, economic difficulties or security problems," said Wu Bingbing, head of the Institute of Arabic-Islamic Culture Studies at Peking University.

"And some countries need to accelerate industrial development in order to accommodate increasing population and labor surplus," he added. "These can be two areas where China's 'Belt and Road' initiative can meet the needs of Middle East countries."

According to Li Guofu, director of Middle East studies at the China Institute of International Studies, the best part of the "Belt and Road" initiative is that it ties China's development with that of other countries.

Mahmoud Allam, a former Egyptian ambassador to China, said the "Belt and Road" initiative has seen much acceptance and applause as it passes through Middle East countries.


"Infrastructure is greatly needed for economic and social development in the Middle East," said Wu Sike, China's former special envoy to the Middle East. "Chinese companies have been working with Arab countries in this area for a long time, accumulating a certain foundation."

China's Arab Policy Paper released last week has listed traditional areas of railway, highway and seaports as well as aviation and satellites in infrastructure cooperation with the Middle East.

Wu Bingbing highlighted railway construction as an example of China's cooperation with the Middle East.

The second-stage construction of a high-speed railway from Ankara to Istanbul in Turkey is a landmark project, and the light rail project in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, has brought great convenience to pilgrims, he noted.

In the future there is huge potential for Chinese companies in the region, with densely populated countries like Iran and Egypt in urgent need of more investment in infrastructure, he said.

In August 2014, a 72-km expansion of the Suez Canal was approved by the Egyptian government to boost the country's ailing economy. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has said that Chinese companies have great chances in the project.

Ahmed Qandil, an expert in Asian affairs with the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Affairs, said that Middle East countries, especially Egypt, can benefit from China's progress in space studies.

The two sides can work together in making satellites, building ground stations, as well as data processing, which will serve Egypt in its national developmental projects, he told Xinhua.


Apart from infrastructure, production capacity cooperation could also become a highlight of bilateral cooperation under the "Belt and Road" initiative, which would add jobs, especially for young people.

"The biggest problem for many countries in the Middle East is social problems such as unemployment, especially in Egypt, where there is a large population," said Li, director of Middle East studies.

A key part of the Chinese initiative is the offering of infrastructure construction and experience, and that can bring good opportunities to young people, he told Xinhua.

The same view was echoed by Qandil, who said the initiative can help a lot in reducing unemployment in the region.

"Solving that social and economic problem could be direct via projects or indirect by pushing economic activity, and eventually increase economic growth, which will serve the interests of the people in general," he said.

Wu Bingbing noted that countries such as Egypt, Sudan, Iraq and Iran have relatively abundant labor force, low labor cost and good education, providing good environment for developing the manufacturing sector.

"For example, textiles, steel, cement, construction materials can be potential areas of production capacity cooperation with Egypt, and in Iran, the automobile and electricity sectors have great potential," he said.


In response to Western accusations that China has been a "free rider" in the Middle East, experts say China's policy on the region is simply different from the West.

"We focus on economy, trade and development, which help these countries to solve domestic and regional problems on their own," said Wu Bingbing. "But Western countries mainly care about political and security interests."

China's continuous operation of its large-scale investment projects in Iraq, for example, helps increase government income and improve social stability, making it easier for security operations, said the expert.

Even as the Islamic State wreaked havoc in Iraq in 2014, China did not stop its economic cooperation with the country, said Wu Sike. "The Iraqi government told me that China's role was extremely helpful for national stability."

Wu Bingbing noted that each country has its unique role in the Middle East, and should play out its own advantages and stick to its own principles.

According to Li, Western countries should be blamed for the chaotic situation in the Middle East.

"The current turmoil in the Middle East is to a large extent due to the wrong policies by the West," said Li. "Calling China a free rider under such situation is bizarre and unacceptable."

Allam said big differences exist between the Western countries and China with regard to policies on the Middle East.

"The West always looks upon the Middle East with colonial and imperialism sight ... The West works on undermining the Middle East and spread chaos and difference, spread religious seditions to easily control its wealth," he told Xinhua.

"However, the Chinese policy on the region is based on development, cooperation, building capabilities of the regional countries, defending the Middle East and African rights without internal intervention," he said.

"The Chinese policies help push the train of development in the region, raise the living standards without depleting the region's resources or wealth," said the former ambassador.

He hailed China as a model of responsible country that keeps balance in ties without interference. "Consequently the Middle East countries open its arms for cooperation with China instead of the West."

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