Beijing: Chinese President Xi Jinping will make an unusual visit next week to Saudi Arabia and Iran as Beijing 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 permanent members of the UN Security Council - the United States, Britain, France and Russia.
But China has been trying to get more involved, especially in Syria, recently hosting both its foreign minister and opposition officials.
In a brief statement, China's Foreign Ministry said Xi would visit Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt on his January 19-23 visit. It provided no other details.
A Chinese president has not visited Saudi Arabia since 2009 when Hu Jintao went, and Jiang Zemin was the last Chinese president to visit Iran, going in 2002.
Last week, a Chinese envoy visited Saudi Arabia and Iran, where he called for both countries to exercise calm and restraint.
"China is trying to present itself as an honest broker between Saudi and Iran, much as it has done between the Syrian government and opposition," said one Beijing-based diplomat, who is familiar with China's Middle East policy.
Li Shaoxian, vice president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a government think-tank, said China had to step up to the plate in the Middle East, but stressed China's role would be different from other superpowers.
"The Middle East is a touchstone for major powers," Li said.
"Whether it is a graveyard depends on whether a country seeks hegemony," Li said, adding that was not China's intention.
Diplomatic sources said the Iran and Saudi trips had originally been mooted for last year.
But it was cancelled after a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and its allies began air strikes in Yemen against the Houthi movement, as China apparently did not want to be seen to be taking sides in the Yemen civil war.
China also has its own worries about radicalisation of the Uighur people who live in China's far western region of Xinjiang, which has been beset by violence in recent years, blamed by Beijing on militants.
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.
China says some Uighurs have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with militant groups there.
In November, IS said it had killed a Chinese citizen it had taken hostage in the Middle East.