Chinese President Xi Jinping's Middle Eastern tour—the first by a mainland leader in seven years—reveals the world's second-largest economy may depart from its trade-oriented foreign policy as it seeks to become a superpower.
After arriving Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, Xi landed in Egypt on Thursday and is due to go on to Iran in a five-day trip that comes as tensions between Riyadh and Tehran flare over the former's execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
China-Arab ties date back to the early 1960s, during which the mainland has traditionally focused on energy, commerce and trade ties with the region, choosing to abstain from geopolitical tensions. But while Chinese energy imports and infrastructure projects around the "One Belt One Road" trade initiative will likely form the bulk of Xi's meetings on this trip, politics may be unusually high on the agenda as well.
"It [Xi's visit] constitutes a recognition that China needs to become a player in the Middle East as part of the protection of its interests and if it wants to be taken seriously as a major power," said James Dorsey, senior fellow at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.
"Arab officials and pundits have long demanded that China act as a superpower and adopt a more active role in the region."
Last year, Yemen's civil war forced Xi to cancel plans to visit the region but since then, China has signaled a grudging recognition that it can longer ignore political issues, he added.
In one sign of increased engagement, China's Foreign Ministry announced last month that it invited members of the Syrian government and the opposition to Beijing, in an apparent effort to position China as a mediator in the Syrian conflict.