A Clearer Role in the Middle East

China lays out its vision for increased cooperation in the region

By Hichem Karoui | Beijing Review NO. 5-6 FEBRUARY 4, 2016


On January 13, China published its first Arab policy paper, reaffirming the strategic significance that it attaches to the region. The release of this important document and the recent state visits of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran coincided with the 60th anniversary of Sino-Arab diplomatic relations and present the role that China seeks to play in the Middle East.

As mentioned in China’s Arab Policy Paper, Xi had already pointed out areas and trends of priority for cooperation for the relevant parties in his speech opening the Sixth Ministerial Meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing in June 2014. Now the agenda for dialogue with Arab and Iranian leaders includes economic cooperation, anti-terrorism, the Syrian crisis, and the acceleration of free trade agreement negotiations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Mediation: a role for China?

China has long remained distant from Middle East conflicts, trying to maintain a neutral stance. Meanwhile, the United States is unlikely to have a big chance of success in mediating a political settlement of the current diplomatic tussle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, due to their deep distrust of America’s interests in the region. Nor has the United States succeeded in its over half a century of mediation efforts between Arabs and Israelis. The series of imbroglios into which the United States has been drawn demonstrate that playing referee in the Middle East while trying to protect American interests is no easy task.

In Syria, Washington’s role is perceived negatively by all parties. In Yemen, the U.S. Government first supported the GCC initiative that brought to power the government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and opposed the coup attempt of the Houthi (supported by Iran), before turning to criticize Saudi Arabia’s endless war in that country. In Iraq, the Americans have also lost their bets, being criticized by all those involved. Actually, the problem is not that the Americans have been passive, but have been over-actively involved militarily in those conflicts, either by arming, pushing or fighting.

Moscow would also not have succeeded where Washington has failed, at least because of two recent events (ignoring past failures from an older period): the rift with Turkey, today a major player in the Middle East; and a bias too pronounced in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, still rejected by the majority of opposition forces, as well as other Arab leaders, Saudi Arabia included. This makes Russia a powerful ally of Saudi Arabia’s arch-nemesis, Iran, which has the same stance concerning Syria.

What becomes crystal clear from reading China’s Arab Policy Paper is the fact that while presenting a roadmap for future Sino-Arab relations as seen from Beijing, we can understand the Chinese worldview, with emphasis on concepts such as “pragmatic cooperation,” “dialogue between civilizations,” “exchanges between different religions” and “harmony and tolerance,” as well as the new initiative of building the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road (Belt and Road Initiative).

Chinese President Xi Jinping (center, front row) meets with chief delegates of Arab nations who were attending the Sixth Ministerial Meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing on June 5, 2014 (XINHUA)

Chinese President Xi Jinping (center, front row) meets with chief delegates of Arab nations who were attending the Sixth Ministerial Meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing on June 5, 2014 (XINHUA)


In fact, we may already be witnessing China’s role evolving into that of a positive mediating force. When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Khonsari of Iran in New York City on December 17, 2015, he made some remarks about the Third Foreign Ministers’ Meeting of the International Syria Support Group to be held the next day. In his view, although some progress had been made in previous meetings, missions such as the integration of oppositions and screening of terrorist organizations remained uncompleted. Thinking of the big picture, the Chinese side decided to participate in the meetings and was willing to–with an objective and an impartial stance–make constructive contributions to advancing political settlement of the Syrian issue.

On December 24, 2015, while receiving Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem in Beijing, Wang made the case for the first time of the Chinese position of a three-point adherence: First, to stick to the direction of politically resolving the Syrian issue; second, to insist that the future and destiny of Syria should be decided by its own people; and third, to adhere to the UN’s role as a main mediator. Wang said that the three-point adherence constitutes an important part of the UN Security Council Resolution 2254 adopted on December 18 last year, which won approval of all its members and serves the interests of Syria and its people.


The Royal Jordanian Armed Forces Band performs during the Second China-Arab States Expo in Yinchuan, northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, on September 10, 2015 (XINHUA)

The Royal Jordanian Armed Forces Band performs during the Second China-Arab States Expo in Yinchuan, northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, on September 10, 2015 (XINHUA)

Relationship roadmap

In 1955, the First Asian-African Conference (Bandung Conference) in Indonesia was an opportunity for Chinese leaders to get in touch with the Arab world and the Middle East. From that time, China’s relations with African and Arab countries have improved. Diplomatic ties with Egypt, Syria and Yemen were established in 1956. A few others followed, such as Iraq, Morocco, and the Sudan, while other Arab countries would join later on. Today, China has established diplomatic ties with all Arab countries, and 50 of the 53 African countries.

It is important to note that Arabs have welcomed a benevolent Chinese role, for peace, stability, and sustainable development in their region; and China has finally responded favorably to such solicitations.

In the foreword of China’s Arab Policy Paper, readers are reminded of China’s clear support to the Arab national causes of independence and development–including Palestine–starting from the 1950s. In return, the Arabs have given China strong support in restoring its lawful seat at the UN and on issues like the Taiwan question.

In 2004, the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum was established, which was a major step toward the later establishment of the strategic cooperative relations of comprehensive cooperation and common development between China and Arab countries. China’s Arab Policy Paper, as it explains, celebrates 60 years of friendly cooperation with Arab countries and helps one to understand China’s policy and objectives in the Arab world.

Xi’s state visits to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran have served to emphasize these choices, which inaugurated a new age of close cooperation with the Arab world. China’s policy in the Middle East has already gained ground with the Belt and Road Initiative, and Arab and Iranian leaders are getting a taste of Chinese inclinations. This is the occasion for China to link the development in the Middle East to its initiative. Conjugated with the new blueprint on China’s Arab policy, Xi’s meetings with leaders of host nations would also have an important impact on the prevailing situation in the region, alongside the ever-important agenda of advancing economic cooperation and trade.


More on this link to Beijing Review: Xi Jinping Visits Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran




Tensions alarmantes entre l’Arabie saoudite et l’Iran

Hichem Karoui

(Version française d’un article paru dans Beijing Review en anglais:2016-01-08)

C’est par un concours de circonstances étrange qu’Adel Al-Jubeir, le ministre saoudien des Affaires étrangères, a déclaré la rupture des relations diplomatiques avec l’Iran le 3 janvier. En effet, alors qu’il était ambassadeur d’Arabie saoudite à Washington, il avait été victime d’une tentative d’assassinat perpétrée par des présumés conspirateurs iraniens en 2011.

Cette anecdote permet d’illustrer la méfiance entre Riyad et Téhéran qui dure depuis au moins 40 ans. Le conflit – car c’est le terme le plus approprié pour décrire la relation – a dégénéré pour prendre différents aspects et des dimensions variées au cours des époques.

Protestation en Iran

Protestation en Iran

Quand les autorités saoudiennes ont exécuté le religieux et activiste chiite Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr avec 43 membres d’Al-Qaïda le 2 janvier, le mouvement de protestation qui a suivi et les condamnations ont été violentes. Sheikh Nimr était considéré comme le leader de la communauté chiite du pays et un critique virulent de la famille royale saoudienne. En 2012, il avait été blessé dans des échauffourées avec les forces de sécurité alors qu’il tentait de s’échapper, avant d’être arrêté et emprisonné. Il avait été condamné à mort en 2014 et ses partisans espéraient qu’un accord pouvait être trouvé pour assurer sa libération.

Quand son exécution a été annoncée, les chiites de la province orientale d’Ach-Charqiya, riche en pétrole, ainsi que l’Iran, l’Irak, le Liban, le Yémen, le Pakistan entre autres ont exprimé leur indignation dans les termes les plus forts. Une telle réaction était attendue. L’assaut donné à l’ambassade d’Arabie saoudite à Téhéran par une foule en colère, mettant le feu au bâtiment, a été jugé inacceptable par les autorités saoudiennes. Les relations diplomatiques ont été immédiatement rompues et toutes les activités économiques avec l’Iran ont cessé.

La décapitation du leader chiite et des 43 djihadistes sunnites accusés de terrorisme a envoyé deux messages.

D’abord, qu’il soit Chiite ou Sunnite, tout citoyen saoudien qui se rebelle contre le gouvernement fait face au même châtiment. C’était donc un avertissement adressé à la population locale, qui signifie aussi que la dissension chiite sera traitée de la même manière que le terrorisme sunnite.

Le second message était adressé à l’Iran, qui est accusé de fomenter le désordre, de pousser la minorité chiite du royaume saoudien à se rebeller, et de s’opposer aux projets saoudiens dans la région. L’opposition comprend les milices chiites prétendument armées par l’Iran et qui se battent contre le régime sunnite au Yémen, soutenu par l’Arabie saoudite, ainsi que des djihadistes sunnites en Syrie, en Irak, en Afghanistan, au Pakistan et d’autres pays asiatiques et africains. Un tel message implique que l’Arabie saoudite n’est pas impressionnée par l’agressivité de l’Iran et peut riposter. Le roi Salmane ben Abdelaziz Al Saoud, que des commentateurs classe parmi les « faucons », incarne ces mesures.

Deux initiatives cruciales de Riyad ont ouvert la voie à cette exécution de masse, la plus importante depuis 1980, à savoir l’adoption d’une nouvelle politique de défense et l’annonce d’une alliance islamique contre le terrorisme.

La nouvelle politique de défense a été exposée en octobre 2015 par le prince Sultan bin Khaled Al-Faisal lors de son allocution devant le Conseil national des relations Etats-Unis–Pays arabes (NCUSAR) à Washington, soulignant que les objectifs premiers de l’Arabie saoudite étaient de « défendre le territoire national, protéger les citoyens saoudiens, sécuriser les intérêts nationaux, accroître la défense des Etats partenaires et renforcer les partenariats entre les institutions et les organismes ». Le prince a par ailleurs fait savoir que « l’évolution de la doctrine va dépendre des capacités conventionnelles des pays potentiellement non-amicaux, de la propagation des menaces non conventionnelles (l’Etat islamique, Al-Qaïda et le Hezbollah) et de la prolifération des armes nucléaires dans la région. »

La formation de l’alliance militaire islamique anti-terroriste a été en elle-même un événement important. Quand il l’a annoncée le 15 décembre 2015, le vice-prince héritier d’Arabie saoudite Mohammed ben Salmane Al Saoud a déclaré qu’elle visait non seulement l’Etat islamique, mais aussi les autres organisations terroristes. D’après l’Agence de presse saoudienne, 34 Etats ont décidé de former une alliance, dont le centre d’opérations conjointes est basé à Riyad. Parmi ces pays, on trouve la plupart des Etats arabes, certains pays musulmans en Afrique et en Asie, dont le Pakistan, le Bangladesh et la Malaisie. Plus de 10 pays islamiques, comme l’Indonésie, auraient exprimé leur soutien à la coalition. L’Iran, l’Irak, la Syrie, l’Afghanistan, l’Algérie, Oman et l’Erythrée ne font pas partie de cette alliance.

Quelles que soient la crédibilité et la cohésion d’une telle alliance, il est clair que ni l’Iran ni l’Irak ou la Syrie ne la rejoindront. Le Yémen, la Syrie et l’Irak ont en fait rejoint le Liban pour servir de champ de bataille par procuration entre l’Iran et l’Arabie saoudite, qui représentent d’un côté les communautés chiites, et de l’autre, les communautés sunnites.

Beijing Information



Ominous Saudi-Iran Tensions

Diplomatic confrontation between two regional powers puts the Middle East at risk of greater chaos

By Hichem Karoui |  Beijing Review | NO. 2 JANUARY 14, 2016

It was through a strange twist of fate that Adel Al-Jubeir, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, declared the severing of his country’s diplomatic ties with Iran on January 3. This is the same man who, being the Saudi ambassador to the United States some years ago, had been subject to a failed murder attempt allegedly by Iranian conspirators in 2011.

Iranians take to the streets in Tehran on January 4 in a protest against Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr (XINHUA)


That anecdote helps illustrate the distrust between Riyadh and Tehran that has spanned for at least four decades. The conflict–such is the most appropriate term to describe the relationship–has degenerated through a variety of aspects and dimensions throughout generations.

When Saudi authorities executed the Shiite cleric and activist, Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, along with three other Shiites and 43 Al-Qaeda figures on January 2, protests and condemnations erupted violently. Sheikh Nimr was considered a leader of the Saudi Shiite minority and a serious critic of the Saudi royal family. In 2012, he was injured in a clash with security forces while trying to escape and was subsequently arrested and jailed. Sentenced to death in 2014, his supporters had hoped that a deal could be reached that would secure his release.

So, when his execution was announced, Shiite Muslims in the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia as well as in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Pakistan and other places expressed intense indignation. Such a response was likely to have been expected. However, the storming of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran by an angry mob that set fire to the building was unacceptable in the eyes of the Saudi authorities. As a result, diplomatic relations were cut off immediately, and all economic activities with Iran were ceased.

The beheading of the Shiite leader, along with 43 Sunni jihadists accused of terrorism, conveyed two main messages:

First, whether Shiite or Sunni, any Saudi citizen who chooses to rebel against the government will face the same fate. This was addressed mainly to the local population. It also implies that Shiite dissension will be treated similarly to Sunni terrorism.

The second message was addressed to Iran, which is accused of fomenting trouble, pushing the Shiite minority inside the Saudi kingdom to rebellion, and opposing Saudi projects in the region. The opposition is comprised of Iran’s alleged arming of Shiite militias to fight against the Saudi-backed Sunni order in Yemen, and Sunni Jihadists in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other Asian and African countries. The message implies that Saudi Arabia is not impressed by Iran’s aggression and is in a position to retaliate. These are the policies that embody Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s Saudi Arabian kingdom, which some commentators have dubbed as “hawkish.”

Riyadh had paved the way to the mass execution, the largest since 1980, through two crucial actions: First, adopting a new defense policy; second, announcing the Islamic anti-terrorist alliance.

The new defense policy was outlined in October 2015 by Prince Sultan bin Khaled Al-Faisal while addressing the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations (NCUSAR) in Washington, D.C. The policy emphasized that Saudi Arabia’s primary goals were to “defend the homeland, protect Saudi citizens, secure national interests, bolster defense of partner states and strengthen inter-agency partnerships.” The prince said that “the doctrine’s evolution will depend on the conventional capabilities of potential non-friendly countries, the spread of unconventional threats (Daesh, Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah) and proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region.”

The formation of the Islamic anti-terrorist military alliance was also a major event in its own right. When he announced it on December 15, 2015, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, said that it was directed not only against the so-called Islamic State (Daesh), but also against any other terrorist organization. According to the Saudi Press Agency, 34 states have decided to form the alliance, with a joint operations center based in Riyadh. The 34 countries include most Arab League states, a number of Muslim states in Africa, and Asian countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Malaysia. More than 10 other Islamic countries, including Indonesia, are said to have expressed their support for the coalition. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Algeria, Oman and Eritrea were not among the members of the alliance.

Whatever the credibility and internal cohesion of such an alliance, it is clear that neither Iran nor Iraq or Syria would join in any time soon. Yemen, Syria, and Iraq have actually joined Lebanon as a proxy battlefield between Iran and Saudi Arabia, representing Shia and Sunni communities, respectively.

Read this story on Beijing Review



Chatting with my Chinese Friend (15): Confessional Politics


01-06-2016 18:47 BJT

By Hichem Karoui

— The beheading of a Saudi Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia, on January 2, sparked violence, and raised the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia to a high level. A mob stormed the Saudi Embassy in Teheran and set fire to parts of the building, while condemnations of the execution emanated from the Shia community, as well as Human rights activists, and the United Nations. Why two big Muslim nations confront each other instead of building a future together? Beyond the execution and the reactions it has engendered, how do you assess the present situation, asked Yu?
Continue reading


Chatting with my Chinese friend (14): No paradise on earth, but hell not hard to find

12-22-2015 19:06 BJT
By H Karoui

My friend Yu was anxious. His sister is maybe buying an art shop in Dubai. Seeing the headlines coming out of the Middle East, Yu was trying to discourage her. When I suggested he was over-reacting, he replied to me on WeChat:

— You don’t know the whole story. But before I get into it all, promise me one thing. Tell me what you think clearly, and please, don’t beat around the bush. 

— You might feel that I beat around the bush because sometimes when you ask me a question I do not always give a direct answer. I understand your anxiety, but as I told you once before, when it comes to discussing the Middle East, you need patience. Now please tell me: What is it you need to understand so clearly?

— The shop my sister wants to buy is not actually in Dubai, but Istanbul. Continue reading


A Story of Tension

The downing of a Russian fighter plane sets off a number of chain reactions 

By Hichem Karoui | Beijing Review, NO. 50 DECEMBER 10, 2015

A picture released and taken on November 30, 2015 by Turkish army press office shows Turkish soldiers carrying the coffin of Russian pilot Lt. Col. Oleg Peshkov into a Russian Air Force transport during a ceremony attended by officials of Russian army at Esenboga Airport in Ankara. Turkey sent back to Russia the body of a pilot killed when his plane was shot down by the Turkish air force for allegedly violating its air space on the Syrian border. AFP PHOTO/ TURKISH ARMY PRESS OFFICE

A picture released and taken on November 30, 2015 by Turkish army press office shows Turkish soldiers carrying the coffin of Russian pilot Lt. Col. Oleg Peshkov into a Russian Air Force transport during a ceremony attended by officials of Russian army at Esenboga Airport in Ankara. Turkey sent back to Russia the body of a pilot killed when his plane was shot down by the Turkish air force for allegedly violating its air space on the Syrian border. AFP PHOTO/ TURKISH ARMY PRESS OFFICE

On November 24, a Russian Su-24 fighter jet was flying at an altitude of 6,000 meters when it was hit by an air-to-air missile. The plane then crashed into a mountainous area of a Syrian province near the Turkish border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that the Su-24 was over Syrian territory when it was hit, while Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asserted that the plane was fired at while in Turkish national airspace, after it had been warned 10 times in the space of five minutes.

The incident has since marked the beginning of a diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Russia–their first military clash in more than a century.

Deal breaker?

Turkey and Russia have had major political divergences over Syria lurking in the shadows. It was a status quo that was maintained as long as they were fighting each other through proxies while still doing business with each other. However, that situation seems no longer sustainable after the fighter jet was shot down.

Moscow sees Ankara as not only aiding and abetting the rebel groups that are fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but also exchanging weapons for gasoline with the radical Islamist group called ISIS, based on reports by Russian media. Meanwhile, Ankara sees Moscow as a disruptive figure partly responsible for the plight of the Syrian people.

The issue has been exacerbated through the media, and outright threats have been exchanged. Russian reports have claimed that Ankara is taking advantage of radical Islamist groups in Syria regardless of the moral and geopolitical consequences. Continue reading


Chatting with my Chinese friend (13):The big Middle East circus of horrors


12-08-2015 15:30 BJT

By: H. Karoui

— Did you watch the news in the Middle East these days? Said Yu.

I detected some sarcasm in his voice, and waited for more. He added:

— They are all pretending to fight ISIS, while mutually accusing each other of betraying and striking secret deals with the enemy. For those, like us Chinese, who watch from the exterior, the scene would become hilarious, if it was not for all the lives it cost. It is so surrealistic that I just can’t believe all this is happening before our eyes, man! Those people are supposed to be allies in the fight against terrorism, right? I don’t mean only Turkey and Russia. I mean all those who are pretending to fight against the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Now, they are either aligning on the side of Moscow or on the side of Ankara, instead of fighting on the same side, since they pretend to have only one enemy: ISIS. Can you believe this? Actually, I feel that ISIS has succeeded in dividing them. Maybe, next stage, they will fight each other and forget all about ISIS!

He was right. Seen from the exterior, the Middle East political stage is like a big circus these days. I said: Continue reading


Chatting with my Chinese friend (12): Do Arabs worry about climate change?


12-01-2015 15:01 BJT

By H Karoui

As she watched thousands expressing their concern about climate change in cities of the globe on the eve of Paris UN conference,  my friend Chun Ling posed some interesting questions that I attempt to answer here.

“Are people in Arab cities also worried about climate change?”

“In Arab cities, they don’t demonstrate about the climate. They have more imminent and closer catastrophes that need all their  attention.”

“Are they not worried about pollution as much as we are in China?”

“Some Arabs may consider this problem a luxury they cannot afford thinking about while thousands die in bombings or flee their  countries.” Continue reading


Chatting with my Chinese friend (11): Mali terrorist assault: Who? Why? How?


11-24-2015 15:18 BJT

By H Karoui


In the aftermath of the attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako that left 27 people dead and just one day after Malian commandos and international special forces stormed the hotel and freed the hostages, my friend Yu contacted me on WeChat, ostensibly upset by what happened:

Most of those kidnapped and killed were ordinary persons, tourists, visitors from Europe, India, China, Turkey and Algeria including diplomats, businessmen, pilots and flight attendants. Can you tell me more about Al-Murabitoun who claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack in Bamako? Why did that happen? China has never done them any wrong. Those three Chinese citizens were just travelers who happened to be in the hotel for business, not politics. A week ago, ISIS slew another Chinese citizen in captivity. How are we supposed to react to this kind of murder against our citizens abroad?

You raised three issues – Who? Why? How? I will answer in order.


Continue reading


Chatting With My Chinese Friend (10): Putin’s decision to suspend flights to Egypt might be the smart move


11-17-2015 16:46 BJT


By H.Karoui, Middle East expert

Why did Putin suspend flights to Egypt? My friend Yu asked.

I said, as long as the self-proclaimed “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS)  terrorist group confined its military operations to those two countries, the major Western powers – although shocked by its barbaric ways – did not really feel an immediate danger in the same way as al-Qaeda.


But after attacks on two international targets – the Russian plane and Paris –it seems timely to come up with fresh theories about how to deal with a threat that is no longer regional. Continue reading