China intends to retain a balanced stance in the Middle East, a senior Chinese diplomat said on Monday, as President Xi Jinping prepared to leave on an unusual visit this week to Saudi Arabia and Iran, regional powers currently locked in a bitter dispute.

Tensions between the Sunni Muslim kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Shiite Muslim Iran have escalated since Saudi authorities executed Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr on Jan. 2, triggering outrage among Shiites.

In response, Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad, prompting Riyadh to sever relations. Tehran then cut all commercial ties with Riyadh, and banned pilgrims from traveling to Mecca.