Much has been written about Confucius Institutes (CI) in the West, but this tool of Chinese influence does not receive much attention for its activities in the Arab world. This article aims to fill this gap. CIs, which operate in universities worldwide, are managed by the Hanban (汉办), the Office of Chinese Language Council International, which is a branch of the Chinese Ministry of Education. As of 2006, CI centers began to appear in Arabic speaking countries, and by 2021, China had established 550 CIs around the globe including 15 institutes operating in the Middle East. Although it should be noted that in 2006 the Hanban planned to run 1000 institutes by 2020, this goal has not been met (PRC Embassy Egypt, September 29. 2006). In 2007, the global head of CIs, Xu Lin, remarked that the CIs were “the ‘brightest brand’ in China’s soft power repertoire” .
West versus East
The reception of Confucius Institutes (CIs) is an essential lens to gauge local public opinion towards China’s presence and to develop a clear picture of the general attitude towards China. In recent years, many CIs in Western oriented countries, have shut down due to local criticism. For example, earlier this year, Confucius Institutes at Alabama A&M University, and the University of Southern Maine were shut down. (Al.com, April 22; Bangor Daily News, April 13). By contrast, Confucius Institutes have expanded their presence in the Arab world. The local reception to CIs in the Middle East and North Africa can be understood through three dimensions: supply and demand, reception from local media and leadership, and the levels of identification by locals with CIs and Chinese values and culture.
Gauging the Local Response
Based on Arabic newspapers, CIs have been positively received in the Arab world in all three dimensions. The first CI in an Arab country was established in Beirut. Speaking at the launch of the Beirut CI, the Deputy President of the host university in Lebanon at Saint Joseph University, stated: “Traditionally, our researchers and students tend to select study and research areas pertaining to France, Britain, Germany and the USA. It is unreasonable that nowadays we wouldn’t care about China, which is quickly becoming a leading global presence” (Arabic China.org.cn, March 12, 2009). At the Beirut institute’s ten-year anniversary celebrations, one of the guests of honor, Adnan Kassar, Chairman of the Lebanese bank Fransabank, said that: “The fact that one of every six people in the world speaks Chinese illustrates very clearly why it is so important to study this language and get to know these wonderful people” (Xinhua, October 1, 2016).
In Egypt, which hosts two CIs in Cairo and Ismailia, there is similar positive receptivity. In March 2017, the Confucius Institute at the Suez Canal University and the British University in Egypt signed a memorandum of understanding regarding the establishment of a Chinese language training unit at the British university (El Watan News, March 21, 2017) According to the leaders of both universities, this step was intended to enable more students to acquire knowledge in Chinese, and to prepare them to apply to scholarships for language studies in China itself. Haled Abdul Jafar, Egyptian Minister of Education and Science, said that the inauguration of the new building is an example of positive and fruitful collaboration between Egypt and China, adding that this is the beginning of a new era in the relationship between the two countries and that he hopes that future collaboration expanded in many further areas (Ahram Online, April 21, 2018).
In Morocco, three CIs were opened between 2008 and 2016. As with the Egyptian model, one CI in Morocco operates branches of its institute in other universities because of high national demand for Chinese language instruction (China Today, October 26, 2018). There is also a similar approach in Sudan, which hosts a CI in the capital, Khartoum. The Sudanese institute serves not only the Sudanese population, but also students from about twenty other nationalities (mostly from African states) in order to meet the demand in these countries. Some of the students at the Khartoum CI expressed appreciation for the Chinese narrative and drew a clear line between studying Chinese and success in business, “I’m learning Chinese so as to improve and further establish his commercial ties in China” (Arabic China.org.cn, November 3, 2016).
At the two CIs, which have been established in in the United Arab Emirates a similar attitude is evident. For example, the President of the University of Dubai , said at the 2010 Dubai CI launch- “It is important that when there are commercial ties with a foreign country, institutions that expose each side to the culture of the other would also be established in parallel (Gulf News, August 22, 2010). This is why we believed it is the right time to open the Institute.” A unique service offered by the institutes in the United Arab Emirates is to provide Chinese lessons tailored to the needs of local police officers These classes address the need of local law enforcement to communicate with the large Chinese community in the country, which numbers over 200,000 people (The National, November 2, 2012).
Chinese Success in the Arab World
As a tool of Chinese Soft-Power, CIs have effectively penetrated the Arab world and have been welcomed among Arab elites including policymakers, university faculty and students, without significant criticism. The local elites see China as a model to look up to, businessmen wish to establish and strengthen trade and financial relationships with the world’s second largest economy, while politicians and academics see China as an alternative ally to the USA that offers what is in their view a well-functioning political system and philosophy, that may better suit Arab culture than the liberal democratic institutions promoted by the West. By leveraging China’s generally positive image in the region, Beijing is able to achieve maximum engagement with Arab elites with minimal investment.
Under President Xi Jinping, Chinese diplomacy tends to claim that China’s operations in the global arena are focused on financial and commercial areas, and that Beijing harbors no political or other aspiration in the global arena, such as replacing the USA in its role as “Global Policeman.” For instance, under Xi, China stresses “win-win” cooperation in China’s international relations by promoting a peaceful coexistence and building a world of cooperation in which both sides, China and the other country, benefit. In this case, the Chinese “win” influence over Arab society at a relatively low cost and the Arab side “wins” access to the second-largest economy in the world. Consequently, it is not surprising that CIs direct their students to study language and culture and promote these areas, rather than dealing with other topics which may be less acceptable to the Chinese government, particularly political issues such as the Hong Kong democracy protests, concentration/ reeducation camps for Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the political status of Taiwan. As with their counterparts elsewhere, CIs in the Arab world block any discussion or research on these subjects.
The Arab countries mentioned above are all non-democratic in their political structures and in this aspect are closer to the Chinese political system than they are to Western democracies. China presents for them a new non-democratic model of governance that has nevertheless achieved geopolitical and economic success. The “Chinese model” of a non-democratic country which still operates a thriving economy is appealing to Arab countries, in comparison to Western countries and the USA in particular, which for years preached that financial success will only follow the adoption of a democratic political system. Likewise, both China and Arab countries have bonded over their shared postcolonial narratives. As far back as the 1955 Bandung Conference, many Arab countries identified China as a world power that presents an alternative to the West, even though in those years China was immeasurably weaker in comparison to its current position. This helps explain Arab countries’ relative receptivity to Chinese influence and CIs.
In addition, many Arab countries, excluding the more affluent Gulf States, are hungry for investment and attention that can enhance the quality and diversity of their local higher education systems. As a result, it is easy to understand why Arab leaders welcome the establishment of these institutes, and promote the spread of a new “Chinese model”. As a result, CI’s have been generally positively welcomed in the Middle East and North Africa. Clearly, CIs are crucial to promote a positive image of China in the Arab world, but they are just one means for influence in the CCP’s toolbox. In addition, China has leveraged media (such as the China Radio International, News agencies and cooperation with the local media outlets) and other elements of education and culture (such as cultural centers, festivals and workshops) to bolster its influence in the region .
Roie Yellinek received his PhD from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. He is an associate researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, and an adjunct researcher at the Dado Center, which is affiliated with the Israeli Defense Forces. He specializes in studying the growing relationships between China and the countries of the Middle East, especially with regard to Chinese diplomacy and soft power. He has written extensively on Chinese diplomacy in the Middle East and is a frequent commentator in local and international media outlets.
 Kingsley Edney, The Globalization of Chinese Propaganda: International Power and Domestic Political Cohesion (New York: Palgrave, 2014), p. 110.
 More about these efforts can be found at: Roie Yellinek, Yossi Mann & Udi Lebel, “Chinese ‘Soft Power Pipelines Diffusion’ (SPPD) to the Middle Eastern Arab Countries 2000-2018: A Discursive-Institutional Study”, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 2020, DOI: 10.1080/13530194.2020.1732870.