Hudson Institute Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East

China in the Middle East | February 2, 2023

china chinese communist party flag
A Chinese flag flies in Beijing, China, on June 28, 2018. (DVIDS)

This report first appeared as a part of Hudson's China in the Middle East newsletter series. To subscribe, click here.

Main Developments

Egypt Seeks to Attract Chinese Tourists

“We are exerting greater efforts to attract more Chinese tourists,” Egypt’s Minister of Tourism Ahmed Issa said on January 22 in a debate in the Egyptian Senate. His statement came just two days after the first Chinese tourists arrived in Egypt since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chinese ambassador to Egypt, Liao Liqiang, and the Egyptian civil aviation minister, Mohamed Abbas Helmy, personally received the Chinese tourists as they arrived at Cairo airport. Liqiang thanked Egypt for not imposing restrictions on Chinese visitors. His comment was a dig at countries such as Morocco, Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar, which, due to China’s ongoing outbreak, have imposed COVID testing requirements on passengers arriving from there.

Even the Chinese government itself has not lifted all travel restrictions on its own people. For over three years, it has suspended overseas group tours. On January 20, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced that it will not approve their resumption until February 6—and then only to approved destinations. Among those is the UAE. In response to the rising demand for flights, the airline Emirates announced that it will resume operations in China.

“Petroyuan” Watch

In an interview from Davos with Bloomberg TV on January 17, Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan teased observers over the question of whether Saudi Arabia will allow China to pay for oil imports in Chinese currency. During his visit to Riyadh in December, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that China intended to buy more oil from Saudi Arabia and that it wanted to settle that trade in Chinese currency. The rise of the “petroyuan,” if it ever takes place, would deliver a blow to the US dollar, so observers hung on al-Jaadan’s every word. But the finance minister said only that the kingdom will consider trading in the renminbi. “There are no issues with discussing [with the Chinese] how we settle our trade arrangements, whether it is in the US dollar, whether it is the euro, whether it is the Saudi riyal, or their currency,” he said. Saudi Arabia is not “waving away or ruling out any discussion that will help improve the trade around the world.”

China Accuses the US of “Plundering” Syria

At a press conference on January 17, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin criticized the United States for ruthlessly exploiting Syria and other impoverished countries. When asked to respond to a report from Syria’s official news agency, which claimed that American forces stole 53 tankers of oil from Syria, Wang remarked that China is “struck by the blatancy and egregiousness of the US’s plundering of Syria,” and that the “Syrian people’s right to life is being ruthlessly trampled on by the US.” Whether the US is offering aid or stealing resources, he continued, “it plunges other countries into turmoil and disaster, and the US gets to reap the benefits for its hegemony and other interests. This is the result of the US’s so-called ‘rules-based order.’”


Oil Exports

“Iran’s oil exports are surging… Much of it appears to be finding its way to China,” Bloomberg reported on January 20. Savvy observers have concluded that Iranian oil is coming into China disguised as Malaysian oil. In December, China’s customs administration registered a record-breaking intake of Malaysian oil. If China’s bookkeeping is accurate, then in the final month of 2022, Malaysia tripled the average daily crude output that it registered during the first nine months of the year, and it pumped more oil than Iraq and the UAE.

The Biden administration openly admits the problem but offers no solution. China “is the main destination of illicit exports by Iran,” said Robert Malley, the US special envoy for Iran, in a recent interview. To staunch the exports, Malley promised “intensified” talks with the Chinese government “to make sure that they understand why it is so important for us to make sure that Iran cannot continue to export its oil.” If you believe that intensified talks with Beijing will strengthen US sanctions against Iran, we’d like to interest you in the purchase of a new oil field in Malaysia.

Chinese Cyberattacks

In a report published on January 18, Palo Alto Networks, a cybersecurity company, revealed that between July and December 2022 the Chinese hacking group Playful Taurus conducted cyberattacks against Iranian government platforms, including those of the foreign ministry. In the view of Mohamed Amine Belarbi, the CEO of Cypherleak, a cyber risk monitoring service, these attacks were likely data collection operations and were not directed against any specific targets. The malware used to execute the cyberattack, Turian, is an upgrade of Quarian, the malware used to target the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2012 and the US State Department in 2013.

Buyer’s Remorse

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia in December continues to reverberate in Tehran. In an interview with an Iranian media outlet on January 17, Mohammad-Hossein Malaek, who served as Iran’s ambassador to China from 1997 to 2001, argued that China is successfully playing Tehran off against Riyadh. The much-ballyhooed 25-year strategic agreement between Tehran and Beijing, he argued, has no value for Iran. For the Chinese, the purpose of the agreement was to increase Arab interest in China and to incentivize Gulf states to conduct more business with Beijing.

Final Notes

Chinese Cars in Israel

Chinese luxury electric car brand Voyah debuted in the Israel market on January 23, introducing the Voyah Free model at a press conference in Tel Aviv. The company is a division of the Chinese Dongfeng Motor Corporation, headquartered in Wuhan, China. 

Kom Ombo Solar Park

Chinese solar equipment manufacturer JA Solar won the contract to supply modules for the Kom Ombo solar park in Egypt. UAE-based independent power producer Amea Power more than doubled the park’s capacity, reaching a total of 500 megawatt peak (MWp). The increase will make Kom Ombo the largest solar plant in Egypt upon its expected completion in August 2024.

Subscribe to the Newsletter