“I think China is an emerging power that can hardly be overlooked and will play a crucial role in international development and reconstruction of global order,” said Ma, a former Arabic language lecturer in northwestern China’s Ningxia Hui autonomous region.
“If you want to cooperate with or engage with China, speaking Chinese is an inevitable skill.”
Ma said he believed that mastering the most-spoken language in the world – and mother tongue of about 1.3 billion people – meant “winning the world”. This faith was behind his decision to open the Wisdom House Chinese Language Institute in Riyadh, he said.
Some 50 students have enrolled in the Riyadh institute, where they are taught by teachers from China. There are about 20 students at the second centre, which started trial operations in Jeddah last month.
The extension of Chinese language education into Saudi secondary schools follows a 2019 agreement struck during Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Beijing, to have Mandarin lessons at all levels of the curriculum, including in universities.
The agreement marked a significant step in China’s global cultural push, which has been set back by the increasing scrutiny on everything from technologies to ideology as part of bitter China-US rivalry.
More than 100 Confucius Institutes – important vehicles for the promotion of Chinese language and culture – have been shut down on campuses in the United States, Europe and Australia in recent years, because of concerns over Beijing’s influence.
Growing negative views on China – largely in response to Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea – have also contributed to the decline in the number of Western universities hosting Confucius Institutes.
However, Beijing appears to be gaining ground in an important new arena by exerting its soft power in the Middle East.
According to Jeffrey Gil, author of The Rise of Chinese as a Global Language: Prospects and Obstacles and a senior lecturer with Melbourne’s Flinders University, interest in foreign language learning tends to follow geopolitical trends.
The decline in interest in Chinese language learning in Western countries “is influenced by the deterioration of relations with China caused by political and economic disputes and this lessened the desirability of learning Chinese”, he said.
“Countries in other regions have generally better relationships with China and greater need of the resources for Chinese language education that are available through China’s efforts to promote the learning and teaching of Chinese,” Gil said.
“As a result, interest in Chinese language has remained strong and even increased in these regions.”
Fan Hongda, a professor at Shanghai International Studies University’s Middle East Studies Institute, said the growing interest in learning Mandarin reflected a booming diplomatic relationship between China and the region, traditionally a backyard of US influence.
Intentionally or not, foreign language learning is a key soft power tool that can be used to create a positive narrative and images of the country, according to Fan.
“Chinese language education has encountered very different situations in different countries over the past years,” Fan said.
“In the developed economies of the West, the passion for learning Mandarin has declined dramatically, [while] governments in Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates … have shown they attach great importance to Chinese language education.”
Fan said the gap also highlighted “the impact of bilateral relations on language education and what has become apparent in recent years is the favourable development of China-Middle East relations”.
The United Arab Emirates – with a population of 9.3 million and the world’s seventh-largest oil reserves – was the first Gulf state to include Mandarin in its national education system.
With Beijing’s help, the UAE started a Chinese language programme in 100 schools in 2019 that expanded last year to 158 public schools, according to figures from the Chinese embassy in Abu Dhabi.
In 2020, Egypt signed a memorandum of understanding with China to adopt Mandarin as an elective for a second foreign language subject at primary and secondary school levels.
And in July, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi – hosted by President Xi Jinping on a state visit to Beijing in February – endorsed a law adding Mandarin to the list of foreign languages that can be taught in middle and high schools across the country.
China’s influence in the Middle East has never been more evident. In December, while his country was still experiencing Covid-19 lockdowns, Xi flew to Riyadh for regional summits with leaders from the oil-rich Gulf Arab nations.
Three months later, Beijing surprised the world by brokering a peace initiative between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
This was followed by a series of rapprochements in the conflict-torn region, including Iran’s resumption of formal diplomatic relations with Morocco and Egypt. The UAE and Qatar, as well as Turkey and Egypt, also agreed to resume diplomatic ties.
With no sign that tensions with the West will abate soon, Beijing is likely to turn its eye to Africa, the Middle East and Latin America – regions where China can “exert soft power through Chinese language education”, according to Gil.
However, it remained to be seen if Mandarin couldn put down deeper roots in the Middle East, he said.
Ma said there was a bright future for teaching Mandarin in Saudi Arabia, which has a population of 37 million and holds the world’s second-largest oil reserves. The kingdom also launched its first Confucius Institute, at Prince Sultan University, in June.
The long-standing US ally is looking to bolster its ties with China, beyond the oil trade to technology, infrastructure and even arms, in an economic diversification blueprint backed by bin Salman.
Last month, Saudi Arabia, together with Iran and the UAE, were among six countries invited to join Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa in an expansion of the Brics association of leading emerging economies.
But there are serious shortages of Chinese language teachers in the Middle East, according to Ma, who said local governments needed to invest more in hiring qualified instructors.
He also noted that Mandarin was one of the most difficult languages to master and China was still regarded as a remote country with a very different cultural background by many people in the Middle East.
In the UAE, where most people are expatriates, Chinese language courses are taught from kindergarten to high school, with pupils required to take two lessons every week.
Teacher shortages and budget constraints mean that not every school can offer the language programmes, according to several Chinese language teachers working in the UAE.
The teachers said they were working 26 to 28 class hours every week because of the high demand for Chinese language lessons. The maximum number of weekly hours permitted is 30.
“This is really heavy to be honest because we are short of hands, and I don’t even have time to go to the restroom during the break,” one of several teachers interviewed by the Post said.
The requirements for Mandarin teachers are high – most need at have spent at least three years in Chinese education overseas, preferably in Western countries.
In addition to a master’s or higher degree, some candidates are also required to provide a Mandarin Standard Certificate and English-language test results, according to several teachers.
Aria Meng, a 27-year-old kindergarten teacher in Abu Dhabi, said the standard required was getting higher, despite the shortage of Chinese language teachers.
“There were nearly 10,000 applications to the Ministry of Education last year but only 100 to 200 applicants [made] the last round,” she said.
“Nearly 99 per cent of the teachers are Chinese. Some are from Singapore, but they are all of Chinese ancestry. I have only seen one Arab teacher. She is Tunisian, but her Chinese is as good as a native.”
Michael Li, who teaches Mandarin at a public school in Dubai – the UAE’s most populous city – said not many local pupils were really interested in learning the language.
“They attend the courses because it is compulsory. Most students who are interested in Chinese are non-local students – especially from Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Palestine – because for these students, learning Chinese can literally change their fate,” he said.
Some of the teachers also said young people in the Gulf states were more interested in going to the West to further their studies rather than China, making English more of a priority for them.
Megan Wei, 29, who teaches Mandarin in Abu Dhabi, said she was often asked “why can’t we just learn English as everyone can speak English, even in China”.