BEIJING • Chinese President Xi Jinping will make an unusual visit next week to Saudi Arabia and Iran, who are locked in a bitter dispute, in what could be a bid by Beijing to act as an "honest broker" as it seeks a greater regional diplomatic role.
While relying on the region for oil supplies, China has tended to leave Middle-Eastern diplomacy to the other four United Nations Security Council permanent members - the United States, Britain, France and Russia.
But it has been trying to get more involved, especially in Syria, recently hosting its foreign minister and opposition officials.
In a brief statement, China's foreign ministry said Mr Xi would visit Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt on his Jan 19 to 23 visit. A Chinese president has not visited Saudi Arabia since Mr Hu Jintao in 2009, and Mr Jiang Zemin was the last Chinese president to visit Iran, in 2002.
Tensions between the Sunni Muslim kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Muslim Iran have escalated since Saudi authorities executed Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr on Jan 2, triggering outrage among Shi'ites across the Middle East.
Last week, a Chinese envoy visited Saudi Arabia and Iran, where he called for both countries to exercise calm and restraint amid their ongoing feud.
"China is trying to present itself as an honest broker between Saudi Arabia and Iran, much as it has done between the Syrian government and opposition," said a Beijing-based diplomat, who is familiar with China's Middle East policy.
This week, China said it wanted to develop deeper defence and anti-terrorism ties with the Arab world, including joint exercises, intelligence sharing and training.
The Middle East, however, is fraught with risk for China, a country that has little experience navigating the religious and political tensions that frequently afflict the region.
Diplomatic sources said the Iran and Saudi trips had originally been planned for last year. But they were cancelled when China apparently did not want to be seen taking sides after a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies began air strikes in Yemen against the Iran-allied Shi'ite Houthi movement.
China also has its own worries about radicalisation of the Muslim Uighur people who live in the far western region of Xinjiang, which has been beset by violence in recent years.