With the U.S. and European economies still recovering, the Arab world is an increasingly enticing market for Chinese exports and a potential source of investors for Chinese projects. Middle Eastern countries are also some of the closest positioned to help develop China’s western provinces, which have fallen far behind its flourishing eastern coastal cities during the past three decades of economic boom.
Perhaps most important, on a strategic level, China wants to protect and strengthen its access to the Middle East’s oil and energy resources, which are fueling the country’s economic growth.
“The short-term goal of increasing halal meat going to Arab countries is to build up our local economy and workforce,” said one provincial official here, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the strategy of central authorities. “But the real goal is to introduce the Arab world to us and get them comfortable with the idea of building up their relations and investment in China. . . . And energy is not the only reason behind it, but it is a big one.”
China’s government has thrown considerable diplomatic and political resources during the past five years into building up Middle East ties. Lavish conferences have been sponsored across the country, ethnic festivals held to celebrate Chinese Muslims’ heritage, and trade delegations sent out from both sides, including two visits to Saudi Arabia by outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao.
The most recent large-scale event — an economic forum that included high-level dignitaries from China and the United Arab Emirates — took place this fall in Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia. In private conversations on the sidelines, Chinese officials described an overall strategy of outreach to the Middle East that was laid out in broad terms by central authorities, then planned and executed in more detail by local officials.
The efforts appear to have produced some positive results. Last year, Sino-Arab trade increased by 35 percent to $196 billion, according to Chinese officials, and in the first half of this year, trade rose 22 percent over the same period in 2011, to $111.8 billion. The Sino-Arab trade remains dominated by oil, but Chinese exports such as textiles and home appliances have made a strong showing, according to limited data released by Chinese officials.
The decision by central authorities to make Ningxia a focal point for bridge-building efforts aimed at the Middle East gave local business leaders a much-needed boost of hope.