President Xi Jinping signs deals with Egypt as China looks to boost clout in the Middle East

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (right) shake hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the presidential palace in Cairo.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (right) shake hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the presidential palace in Cairo.PHOTO: REUTERS

CAIRO (AFP) - Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a slew of trade deals with Egypt's leader on Thursday (Jan 21) as part of a regional tour aimed at bolstering Beijing's economic ties and clout in the Middle East.

After arriving late on Wednesday from Saudi Arabia, Mr Xi held talks with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and was to address the Cairo-based Arab League.

State television broadcast live the signing of 21 bilateral agreements at a presidential palace in Cairo in the presence of the two leaders.

Earlier on Thursday, state-run newspaper Al-Ahram reported that the deals were worth US$14 billion in the electricity, transportation, agriculture, civil aviation and housing sectors.

In an article in Al-Ahram ahead of his visit, Mr Xi expressed China's backing for Egypt running its affairs without outside interference.

"China supports the people of Egypt in making independent choices for the future of their own country," he wrote.

He also said China supported Egypt "playing an active role in regional and international affairs".

Mr Xi's regional tour, his first to the Middle East as president, will take him next to Iran.

Beijing has long taken a backseat to other diplomatic players in the Middle East but analysts say the region is crucial to Mr Xi's signature foreign policy initiative - known as "One Belt One Road" - touted as a revival of ancient Silk Road trade routes.

China, the world's second-largest economy, also relies heavily on oil and gas imported from the energy-rich Middle East.

Mr Xi's visit to Egypt comes just ahead of the Jan 25 anniversary of the 2011 revolution that toppled longtime Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak's ouster was followed by unrest and eventually a military overthrow of his Islamist successor Mohamed Mursi, the country's first freely elected president, by then-army chief Sisi.

As well as addressing the Arab League, Mr Xi was to visit Egypt's newly convened parliament, which was sworn in earlier this month after elections dominated by pro-government candidates.

In Saudi Arabia, Mr Xi met King Salman and oversaw the opening of a joint-venture oil refinery in the Yanbu Industrial City on the Red Sea.

Saudi Arabia is China's biggest global supplier of crude.

Few details have emerged of Mr Xi's talks with leaders in Riyadh but he had been expected to seek to ease tensions between Saudi Arabia, the region's main Sunni power, and Shi'ite rival Iran.

Saudi Arabia and a number of its Sunni Arab allies broke diplomatic ties with Tehran earlier this month after protesters angry over Riyadh's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric ransacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.

Iran and Saudi Arabia back opposing sides in a range of Middle East conflicts, including in Syria and Yemen, and there are fears the row could derail diplomatic efforts to resolve them.

Mr Xi was expected on Friday in Iran, just days after sanctions were lifted when Tehran implemented its historic nuclear deal with world powers.

China, with the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Russia, was among the countries that reached the agreement with Iran in July to curtail its nuclear activities in exchange for ending international sanctions.