BEIJING, Jan 4 (Reuters) - China said on Monday it was concerned about the prospect of an intensification of conflict in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with rival regional power Iran.
Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran on Sunday, responding to the storming of its embassy in Tehran in an escalating row over Riyadh's execution of a Shi'ite Muslim cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an outspoken opponent of the ruling Al Saudi family.
Tension between revolutionary, mainly Shi'ite Iran and Saudi Arabia's conservative Sunni monarchy has run high for years as they backed opposing forces in conflicts across the Middle East.
"Like the international community, China is highly concerned about the developments and expresses concern that the relevant event may intensify conflict in the region," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing, referring to the escalation in tension.
The safety and dignity of diplomatic personnel should be guaranteed, Hua said.
"We hope the relevant parties can maintain calm and restraint, properly resolve their differences through dialogue and consultation and jointly safeguard regional peace and stability," she said.
One driving force of support for Islamic State militants fighting in Iraq and Syria has been a rise in sectarian anger, often inflamed by the proxy wars emerging from the political struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The United States, Saudi Arabia's biggest backer in the West, encouraged diplomatic engagement in the region and called for leaders to take "affirmative steps" to reduce tension.
The U.S. State Department also urged Saudi Arabia to respect and protect human rights and said Nimr's execution "risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced".
China relies on the Middle East for oil supplies, but tends to leave diplomacy there to other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France and Russia.
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Writing by Michael Martina; Editing by Robert Birsel)