Nizar Bou Karroum
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013, has significantly expanded China's economic and political influence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The initiative, which consists of a new Silk Road Economic Belt and a maritime road, has drawn in 147 countries by 2023, primarily low and middle-income countries . China signed agreements with 21 MENA countries, including 18 Arab countries, on joint projects for the BRI. By 2023, Middle Eastern countries received 23% of BRI engagement, aiming to further increase their cooperation with China .
China's relationship with MENA countries dates back to the Cold War era, with the Non-Aligned Movement attracting many countries seeking neutrality. However, relations remained limited, especially during the Maoist era. China's economic reforms led to adjustments in foreign policy, focusing on fostering improved relations with MENA countries to secure stable oil supplies . Despite these efforts, trade and economic exchanges with the Middle East have only made limited progress reaching USD 1.7 billion in 1985 . In the 2000s, Sino-Middle Eastern trade relations reached new highs, as China viewed the region as an attractive market and a suitable source for oil imports. In 2001, the Communist Party of China adopted the strategy of "going out" prompting Chinese private and public actors to invest in the Middle East . The period leading up to Xi Jinping's 2013 takeover saw a further increase in Chinese trade relations and political and armed presence. The launch of the BRI marked a new era of cooperation between China and the MENA region, evident in enhanced ties with MENA countries.
Over the past few years, China concluded comprehensive strategic partnerships with a number of MENA countries including Algeria, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, and Egypt. Comprehensive strategic partnerships, according to Fulton , occupy the highest tier in the hierarchy of Chinese partnerships and prioritize “full pursuit of cooperation and development on regional and international affairs.”
China's BRI has faced criticism regarding its financing policy targets and large-scale infrastructure projects without sufficient financial viability. China's loans have higher interest rates and shorter repayment windows than loans from other creditors, making it an alternative lender of last resort. The BRI has also led to concerns about China's influence and motives in the region, as some countries have grown heavily indebted to China as a result . Despite China providing significant debt relief and restructuring to these countries, examples like its acquisition of the Sri Lankan Hambantota Port through a 2017 debt-for-equity swap continue to raise concerns about China's influence and motives. The BRI has further been accused of lack of transparency, with Chinese lenders criticized for corruption and manipulating partner countries . Critics point at the projects’ murky nature and the insufficient disclosure of information, raising questions about China's intentions. Finally, China has been criticized for contributing to environmental damage around the world by exporting its most environmentally unfriendly technology through the BRI .
The introduction of BRI projects to the MENA region brought about promising opportunities for development in partnering countries. Chinese investments in energy, infrastructure, technology and security have the potential to catalyze growth in MENA countries, addressing pressing needs for progress in their economies. However, increasing global concerns surrounding BRI projects and lessons learned from previous MENA experiences underscore the need for the region’s countries to adopt preemptive measures. These measures are essential to ensure optimal outcomes and success from such projects, including:
About the Author
Nizar Bou Karroum is currently an intern at IFI, within the Economy and Finance Cluster.