SINCE he took over as China’s leader in 2012, Xi Jinping has been a busy globetrotter. Last year he visited more countries than Barack Obama, America’s president (14 against 11). Heedless of whether his hosts are powerful, puny or pariahs, he has flown everywhere from America to the Maldives and Zimbabwe. Mr Xi wants to project China’s rising power—and his role in promoting that—to foreign and domestic audiences. But until this week, he had not set a presidential foot in the Middle East.

The trip, under way as The Economist went to press, began in Saudi Arabia (whose king, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, is pictured with Mr Xi). He then visited Egypt and was due to finish his tour in Iran. No Chinese president had toured the region since 2009. China’s leaders had worried about getting embroiled in the region’s intractable disputes. But China has a big stake in the Middle East. It is the world’s largest oil importer and gets more than half of its crude from the region (see chart). Mr Xi’s much ballyhooed “new Silk Route”, aimed at linking China and Europe with the help of Chinese-funded infrastructure, runs across the Middle East. Chinese companies are already building expressways and harbours there.

The timing of Mr Xi’s tour is tricky. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are particularly high after Saudi Arabia executed a Shia cleric earlier this month and angry Iranians responded by storming the Saudi embassy in Tehran. But the lifting of Western sanctions on Iran on January 16th (seearticle) allowed Mr Xi to display even-handedness by visiting both countries, without upsetting Western powers. Mr Xi, like his predecessors, likes to present China as a non-interfering champion of peace. (Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, said this week that the West’s “meddling hands” were “more of a mortal poison than of a magic potion” in the Middle East.) But Mr Xi is not keen to play a central role as peacemaker. China’s first “Arab Policy Paper”, released on January 13th, is a vague, waffly document. It talks of “building a new type of international relations”, but is devoid of new ideas.

Zhang Ming, a vice-foreign minister, said this week that economic development was the “ultimate way out” of conflict in the region. By expanding its trade and investment links with the Middle East, China hopes discontent and conflict there will gradually dissipate. In addition to crushing dissent, it is trying a similar approach in Xinjiang, a province in western China with a large Muslim population—so far without success.

In the long run, China may find it hard to avoid taking sides. To some extent it has already done so in Syria: it talks to representatives from both the Syrian government and the opposition, but by vetoing UN resolutions on intervention it tilts, in effect, in the government’s favour. The presence of a growing number of Chinese citizens in the Middle East may challenge China’s non-interventionist approach. After a Chinese national was executed by Islamic State in November, China promised to strengthen protection of its citizens abroad. Its new rules of Middle Eastern diplomacy could end up resembling familiar Western meddling.

By THE ECONOMIST, Jan 23 2016 in THE ECONOMIST.

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