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China in MEA: more than bricks and mortar

Five years after China launched its Belt and Road Initiative, its ambitions in the Middle East and Africa are beginning to go beyond infrastructure and oil.

Xi Jinping made a few calculated stops on his way to the 10th Brics leaders’ summit in South Africa this July. The trip – his first since he was reappointed as president of the People’s Republic of China in March – took him to the UAE, Senegal and Rwanda, with a final stop in Mauritius once the summit ended.

When Xi touched down in Dakar, he was given a hero’s welcome. A brass band played while Senegalese and Chinese flags waved high in the air. A couple of deals were signed during Xi’s whistle-stop trip, and what did become clear is that Senegal, a country that lies on the Atlantic Coast far beyond the original reach of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is now firmly part of it.

“In the Middle East and Africa, Chinese involvement is becoming much broader, much more diversified,” says Carmen Ling, global head of renminbi internationalization and Belt and Road at Standard Chartered. Today, China’s interest in the region has few limits.

Over the last year, BRI has become something much more tangible in the Middle East and Africa. In east Africa, the modern railway systems connecting Addis Ababa to Djibouti and Nairobi to Mombasa funded by the Export-Import Bank of China are up and running.