After trade and investment, China takes language routes to consolidate position in Middle East

Marking a significant shift in geopolitics in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia which recently signed agreement for India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), considered as a retaliation to China-led Belt and Road Initiative, has directed all public and private secondary schools in the country to teach Chinese language classes twice a week.

According to Saudi Gazette, the order, passed by the Kingdom’s Ministry of Education in August, mandates every secondary school—private or public—to teach Mandarin to children in the fourth period of every Sunday and Monday. The guidelines issued to the Kingdom’s educational departments, also emphasize that schools should ensure that at least one proficiency class would be held per week in the entire semester.

The Jeddah-based English language news portal said an agreement to teach Mandarin in Saudi schools was struck during the visit of Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman to China in February 2019.

As per South China Morning Post, while Saudi Arabia is the first country in the Middle East to make Mandarin language compulsory in schools, the UAE began incorporating the Chinese language into its kindergarten- to- secondary schools’ curriculum as an elective subject way back in 2017. Currently over 150 state-backed schools in the UAE are giving more than 50,000 students lessons in Chinese language across the country, the Hong Kong-based English language said.

Iran is also planning to introduce Mandarin as an optional subject in schools after President EbrahimRaisi endorsed a law to this effect in July this year.

The move indicates Beijing’s growing footprint in the Middle East which has traditionally been a zone of US’s influence.

Last month, Saudi Arabia, along with Middle East countries such as UAE and Iran became members of the BRICS. It is said that China pushed their inclusion into the emerging economies bloc. In March, Saudi Arabia was made a dialogue partner of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, while Iran was included in this security and economic bloc in July.

In March, China played a mediatory role to bring about a landmark agreement between archenemies Saudi Arabia and Iran. For several years, Riyadh and Tehran had locked themselves up in bloody military and unreceptive diplomatic hostilities.

Except for a period between the end of the 1980s and the early 2000 when Iran was ruled by the two reformist presidents, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, Tehran and Riyadh never saw tension between them mitigating.

In September 2015, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia soured after Tehran blamed Riyadh for the death of more than 400 Iranian pilgrims in a stampede during the hajj pilgrimage. Tehran blamed Riyadh for the mismanagement.

A year after this incident, mobs in Tehran attacked Saudi diplomatic missions after Riyadh executed nearly 50 dissidents, including prominent Shia cleric Sheikh al-Nimr.  Iran and Saudi Arabia were once again into the blame game against each other after massive protests rocked Iran in September 2022 following the death of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old woman who died in the custody of Iran’s morality police after being arrested for allegedly not wearing her headscarf properly. Tehran blamed Riyadh for stoking unrest in the country.

In the midst of such developments, China brokered a truce between two archfoes which, however, follow their own set of agenda in the Middle East region. But analysts see them from the angle of economy and strategy. Saudi Arabia is China’s largest trade partner in the region. German public broadcaster, DW quoting Saudi government figures said trade between the two countries was more than $106 billion in 2022—a 30% rise from 2021. In comparison to the US-Saudi trade stood at only $55 billion in 2022, said DW.

For China, in the wake of the US shifting its focus towards the Indo-Pacific region following the Ukraine war, winning away the Middle East region from America’s influence is a major goal. In June, shortly after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Riyadh, the Gulf nation held a China-Arab business conference that saw the two countries signing 30 agreements of more than $10 billion.

Similarly, with the UAE, China’s relations are strengthening on all fronts. In 2022, the value of non-oil trade between the two countries was $72 billion—a 18% rise from 2021, data from the UAE’s Ministry of Economy showed. Beijing aims for $200 billion worth of bilateral trade with the UAE by 2030.

On the investment front, China is the third largest foreign investor in the UAE. Till the beginning of 2021, China’s investment in the UAE stood at $9.3 billion, said the Gulf country’s Ministry of Economy.

China and Iran trade is also resulting in good dividends for both sides. This year from January to July 2023, the two-way trade stood at $8.540 billion, China’s Customs Office said. Currently when Saudi Arabia and Russia-led supply cuts have escalated crude oil prices in the world, China is sourcing 80% of its oil from Iran as it is selling its oil at a discounted price, said Reuters.

In 2021, China inked a 25-year $400 billion deal with Iran. The deal aimed at making investments in Iran in dozens of fields, including banking, telecommunications, ports, railways, health care and information technology over the next 25 years, The New York Times said.

Analysts say with China having long standing economic relations with Middle East countries, it has begun building strategic relations with them through diplomacy, military, energy, technology, and health cooperations.

All this while, it is also adopting language and cultural routes to consolidate its position in the region, taking advantage of the absence of any push back from the US which once used to call shots in the affairs of the Middle East. In June, the number of Confucius Institutes in the Middle East and North Africa rose to 23 across 13 countries in the region, South China Morning Post said. 

Chinese language learning and China studies departments have also been set up at universities in 14 countries across the region, said the Hong Kong-based daily.

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