China's Xi to visit Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran next week

BEIJING - Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran next week, Beijing's foreign ministry said Friday, as the world's second-largest economy seeks greater diplomatic heft.

Spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement that Xi would visit the three Middle Eastern countries over five days from Tuesday.

The trip comes amid mounting tensions in the region over the war in Syria and after protesters ransacked and burned the Saudi Embassy in Tehran over the execution of a Shiite cleric.

China depends on the Middle East for its oil supplies but has long taken a back seat in the region's diplomatic and other disputes, only recently beginning to expand its role, especially in the Syrian crisis.

As China's economy has grown, its dependence on imported oil and natural gas has increased, making the Middle East a crucial part of China's strategy as it seeks to expand its influence in through Xi's signature foreign policy initiative, One Belt One Road.

Introduced by Xi in 2013, it aims to increase China's footprint from central Asia to Europe through the use of loans to build infrastructure and transport networks.

It is likely to be a key element of his discussions next week, although earlier this week a Chinese diplomat urged "calm and restraint" between Saudi Arabia and Iran.