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China brings ‘panda diplomacy’ to Middle East with gift to Qatar

The two pandas, known in Chinese as Si Hai and Jing Jing, arrived as the desert nation prepares to host the World Cup next month.

HONG KONG — A pair of giant pandas arrived in Qatar on Wednesday as a gift ahead of the World Cup, marking the first time China has extended its “panda diplomacy” to the Middle East.

The two pandas — known in Chinese as Si Hai and Jing Jing — will spend the next 15 years in an indoor enclosure at Al Khor Park where conditions are similar to the western Chinese forests that wild pandas call home.

Si Hai, a 3-year-old female weighing about 150 pounds, will be given the Arabic name Thuraya, while Jing Jing, a 4-year-old male weighing 265 pounds, will be known in Arabic as Suhail. About 1,800 pounds of fresh bamboo — which pandas eat almost exclusively — will be flown in for them every week.

The pandas will be available for public viewing by the time Qatar hosts the World Cup starting Nov. 20. Although the Chinese national team did not qualify for the soccer tournament, Chinese companies have been involved in the construction of major projects for the event, including the main stadium. 

Image: QATAR-CHINA-ANIMAL-DIPLOMACY-WC-2022
A child viewing one of two giant pandas gifted from China in Al Khor, Qatar, on Wednesday.Denour / AFP - Getty Images

Giant pandas, a vulnerable species that seldom reproduces in the wild, are considered a national treasure and symbol of China. There are about 1,800 in the wild, and an additional 600 living in captivity. 

China has sent pandas to about 20 countries, including the United States, as a diplomatic tool to improve ties with foreign nations, but Qatar is the first country to receive them in the Middle East. In recent years, China has been strengthening its relations with countries in the region, even as diplomatic issues like tensions over Taiwan and Russia’s war in Ukraine strain its ties with the West.

Speaking at a welcome ceremony, Zhou Jian, the Chinese ambassador to Qatar, called the pandas a “symbol of peace.”

“Let us wish the two lovely giant pandas a happy life and healthy growth in their new home in Qatar,” he said in a version of his speech he posted on Twitter. “May they bring more love, surprise and joy to all!”