Four years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed his ambitious plan “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR), or the “Belt and Road Initiative,” which comprises the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.
According to the Chinese map, the belt aims to link China, Central Asia, Russia and Europe via railroads, highways and pipelines. The Maritime Silk Road is a trade route snaking through Southeast Asia all the way to Europe, through the Strait of Malacca, to India, Africa and the Middle East.
China’s official figures indicate that over 100 states and international organizations have already joined the initiative, of which more than 40 have signed cooperation agreements with China. Importantly, the UN General Assembly, the UN Security Council and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) have all incorporated or reflected Belt and Road cooperation in their resolutions and documents.
On May 14 and 15, the Chinese capital will host what is likely to be this year’s most important international summit, to discuss the world’s most ambitious initiative. More than 1,200 people will attend the summit including government officials, scholars, entrepreneurs, representatives of financial institutions and media organizations from 110 states, as well as representatives from more than 60 countries including at least 28 heads of state and government, as well as the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Christine Lagarde, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency.
The “Maritime Road” will gain momentum in the coming years, as most of China’s trade is carried by the shipping industry. This situation is unlikely to change significantly over the next two decades, for good reason. The obvious points are that shipping is more efficient, cheaper, less complicated, has a much larger freight capacity and does not need to pass through the borders of several countries. The future growth in the global economy is expected to be concentrated in the vicinity of the Maritime Road, especially in East Asia, Africa and to some extent the Middle East.
It is important to note the strategic value for the Chinese economy represented by maritime transport. According to China’s official data, shipping is vital to 90 percent of China’s foreign trade, 98 percent of imported iron ore, 91 percent of crude oil imports, 92 percent of imported coal and 99 percent of imported grain. Consequently, it is logical to expect that countries along the maritime route will attract the lion’s share of Chinese future investments.
Experts in China are optimistic about the future trajectory of relations with the Gulf states.
— Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi
In this context, Saudi Arabia is working tirelessly to integrate its Vision 2030 reforms with the Chinese initiative and to attract more Chinese companies to invest in Saudi Arabia, particularly in Jazan Economic City, on the Red Sea in the southwest of the country.
The Kingdom is positioned to be an excellent trade hub linking different continents.
“The Kingdom is implementing (the) Vision 2030 and the National Transformation Program (NTP) 2020, which makes the two sides (China and Saudi Arabia) ideal partners in building OBOR, where the Kingdom can become an important link between China, African and European markets,” Ding Long, the deputy dean of the School of Foreign Studies at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, told Arab News.
“China and GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries led by Saudi Arabia should take further measures to institutionalize intra-trade, by accelerating the negotiation of (a) free-trade agreement and sign it as soon as possible to push the relations between the two sides beyond their transactional nature,” he added.
Song Niu, associate professor of the Middle East Studies Institute at the Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), said that Saudi Vision 2030, given its efforts to diversify the economy and invest in new sectors other than energy, “plays an important role in its economic transformation, which corresponds to China’s OBOR initiative in many specific areas.”
He added: “In addition to the oil and gas fields, the two sides have a perfect cooperation in large-scale religious-political construction projects, such as the Al-Mashaaer Al-Mugaddassah Metro Southern Line and Haramain High-Speed Rail Project for the Haj, which reflects China’s deep understanding and responses to Saudi Arabia’s national conditions.”
There is also optimism among some Chinese experts about the future trajectory of the relations between the GCC countries and China.
“Historically, the Gulf region was connected to the Silk Road and the six GCC countries are the strategic focus areas of OBOR,” said Qian Xuming, a research fellow at the Middle East Studies Institute, SISU. “There is great potential for cooperation between the two sides. OBOR will push cooperation in several sectors including trade, energy, infrastructure construction, high-tech and other fields to a higher level of strategic relations,” he added.
• Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi is a UK-based Middle East researcher, political analyst and commentator with interests in energy politics and Gulf-Asia relations. Al-Tamimi is author of the book “China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance?” He can be reached on Twitter @nasertamimi and e-mail: [email protected]