China’s New Grand Strategy for the Middle East

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At the start of 2016, prospects weren’t good for what would later become one of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s most consequential international tours. The January execution of leading Shite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the voice of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority, and the subsequent severing of diplomatic relations between several Sunni countries and Shiite Iran came at a particularly inconvenient time for Xi. His planned maiden trip to the Middle East was to include stops in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, all majority Sunni countries. Visiting Sunni leaders at a time of great tension with Shiite Iran would have created the impression that China supported one of the two major branches of Islam over the other, undermining Beijing’s long held policy of staunch neutrality in the Middle East.