Dr. Nasser Saidi, one of the Middle East’s preeminent economists and a former government minister for economics and finance in Lebanon, has said that Arab countries should embrace China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to include participation in and contributions to China’s Tiangong space station as well as the Space and Digital Silk Roads.
Speaking at an event in Dubai on 16 April 2018 called the “New Silk Road Dialogue,” hosted by the UAE Chapter of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Dr. Saidi said that, “the Arab world should play the Belt and Road Initiative card to the fullest.”
Dr. Saidi stated that Arab countries should step up their engagement with China through the auspices of the BRI across a range of sectors, such as science, environmental policy, telecommunications, renewable energy, and space, arguing that countries such as the United Arab Emirates should cooperate with China on its Tiangong space station as part of the Chinese-led Space Silk Road.
For Dr. Saidi, the economic rationale and opportunities presented by the BRI for Arab countries is compelling.
“Asia, including China, will represent by the end of the year 33.3 percent of the world economy, while the United States will have a share of 15.1 percent, down from 15.3 percent,” he told the event audience.
As a result, Dr. Saidi said that Arab governments, banks, and other financial institutions and organisations must position themselves in order to take advantage of the U.S.$26 trillion infrastructure opportunities across the Middle East, Eurasia, Africa, and the Indian Ocean Region. Dr. Saidi said that, “this masterplan is an opportunity for Arab sovereign wealth funds to invest in the new epicenter of the global economy.”
The geographical scope of the BRI “represent 65 percent of the world’s population, 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, 25 percent of global trade, and it spans 62 countries,” Dr. Saidi noted.
Dr. Saidi’s remarks were made a week after the opening of the China-Arab States BDS/GNSS Centre in Tunis, Tunisia, where the Chinese Beidou satellite positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) service will be promoted for use across the Arab world.
They also come at a time. However, when China’s BRI is coming under increasing criticism for placing some of the world’s poorest and troubled countries under considerable debt incurred after Chinese companies have built large infrastructure projects that often have questionable economic viability.
At a BRI conference held in Beijing last week, Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), remarked that BRI, “ventures can also lead to a problematic increase in debt, potentially limiting other spending as debt service rises, and creating balance of payments challenges.”
One of China’s approaches to its Space Silk Road is to provide large loans to poor countries that are then used to pay for Chinese-built communications and Earth observation satellites, placing these countries in debt and often leaving them with satellite systems that have little prospect for their owners to receive a return on investment, as well as several incidences where the satellites have failed soon after launch.