Published: 19:46, April 19, 2024 | Updated: 10:08, April 22, 2024
When civilizations meet to boost trade
By Amr Elhenawy

People don’t usually visit museums to learn about new global realities. But exhibitions of historical relics at Beijing’s Palace Museum have been teaching cogent lessons about contemporary, real-world developments. The exhibitions took place thanks to dramatically changing geopolitical and economic relationships.

One recent exhibition, titled Historic Encounters: Interaction Between China and West Asia in History, was the subject of a recent story in the South China Morning Post. The exhibition displayed hundreds of ancient Saudi Arabian and Iranian artifacts, some of which illustrate reciprocal cultural influence in early Sino-Islamic trade along the old Silk Road.

Another exhibition at the Palace Museum, The Glory of Ancient Persia: Exhibition of Iranian Cultural Relics, explored the rich cultural history of Iran. Yet, another exhibition, AlUla, Wonder of Arabia, showcased artifacts from an ancient Arabic oasis city in the Medina Province of Saudi Arabia.

These exhibitions, involving joint loans from Iran and Saudi Arabia, could only take place because of a recent triumph of Chinese diplomacy. It was only in March 2023 that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was able to broker the restoration of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh.

Why would the Palace Museum — the repository of some of the greatest artistic achievements of Chinese civilization — exhibit products of ancient Islamic civilization? One immediate stimulus may have been Beijing’s official commitment to “enhanced exchanges and understanding” among different cultures, as announced in the Global Civilization Initiative of March 2023.

An event a decade earlier provides a deeper explanation. At Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan on Sept 7, 2013, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech about the ancient Silk Road. He spoke of its lessons for peaceful trade and cultural exchange in the contemporary world. The Palace Museum is proving the president’s point with exhibitions of goods traded centuries ago and of artifacts illustrative of cultural influences between peoples.

The Palace Museum’s exhibitions also recognize a new contemporary reality: China is opening its doors to other civilizations. That speech in Kazakhstan marked the launch of the most significant enterprise in international cooperation of the 21st century, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

President Xi declared the BRI to be “rooted in the ancient Silk Road”, and to a remarkable extent, many of its first major projects were in the Muslim countries traversed by the old road. Today, the BRI involves projects in more than 150 countries, including many that are home to some of the world’s nearly 2 billion Muslims.

The Palace Museum’s exhibitions of Persian, Saudi and other West Asian artifacts acknowledge China’s deepening contemporary engagement with Islam. In the third decade of the 21st century, when two-fifths of the world’s population identify with either Chinese or Islamic civilizations, they need to recognize one another: The Palace Museum is doing exactly that.

But it is in the Arab world of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) that BRI projects are achieving their most dramatic real-world results.

Although frequently derided by critics as “debt traps”, the BRI’s major infrastructure initiatives in the region have integrated seamlessly with Arab national development plans (such as Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, Oman’s Vision 2040, and Egypt’s Vision 2030).

Port modernization (including Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Islamic Port and the United Arab Emirate’s Jebel Ali Port in Dubai) has boosted trade and improved logistics for supply chains. New economic zones (such as Oman’s Duqm Special Economic Zone and Egypt’s Suez Canal Economic Zone) are stirring economic activity. And Chinese investments have funded developments in energy, infrastructure, manufacturing, and technology.

Moreover, China’s commitment to the Arab world has been clearly and repeatedly underscored. In December 2022, during President Xi’s state visit to Saudi Arabia and attendance at the China-Arab Summit, he urged that “the spirit of China-Arab friendship” be developed into “a closer China-Arab community with a shared future”.  He reiterated that the BRI would be the guiding principle — “the lodestar” — for such collaboration.  

He described the relationship between China and the Arab world as a “strategic partnership of comprehensive cooperation and common development”. In economic terms, the partnership promises to link China’s market of 1.4 billion people with the Arab world’s 475 million. In geopolitical terms, it suggests a fundamental, long-term reshaping of relations of the MENA with the rest of the world.    

The connectivity encouraged by these developments is not only between Chinese and Arabs. The Doraleh Multipurpose Port, a major BRI development project in Djibouti, is serving as a new gateway into Africa. In recent years, United Arab Emirates’ trade has surpassed the United States’ trade with sub-Saharan Africa, and as reported by The Economist recently, Dubai is now home to more than 26,000 African companies. African business people seeking investment and support now congregate in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, or Qatar.

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s government has been quick to recognize the MENA as the 21st century’s most rapidly developing new commercial and financial powerhouse. It has done a good job of following up BRI projects with visits and official delegations to key players in the region. It has nimbly mobilized the city’s resources to develop a full agenda of cultural and financial mega events.

But official enthusiasm for exploiting the vast untapped potential in the MENA has thus far failed to encourage equal effort from businesses in Hong Kong and the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area as a whole. The same lack of private initiative is true of most Arab businesspeople: They know the vast potential of the Chinese market, but they hesitate when they should be committing resources to it.

Government-to-government contacts alone are never enough to promote commercial and financial development. The most effective impetus always comes from people-to-people interactions: At first in small business deals between individuals; later, after gradually building relations of trust, ever larger deals involving more people; and as mutual profits increase, genuine business friendships and partnerships can develop. When people meet to trade, civilizations don’t need to clash.

The impressive antiquities from sites in Iran and Saudi Arabia drew admiring crowds in Beijing. But it is the much humbler, camel-borne objects in the Palace Museum that have the clearest lessons for us. They were traded centuries ago by individuals who trekked across deserts and mountains to faraway places. Today’s Chinese and Arab business leaders need risk neither life nor limb to seize the burgeoning opportunities in each other’s markets. The doors have been opened for them.

The author is former consul general of Egypt to the Hong Kong and Macao SARs.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.