While the Middle East is abuzz with criticisms of American policy, the leaders of the region seem to be engaged in a race to win China’s favor and are turning to Beijing to sign a wide variety of bilateral agreements. Egyptian president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, for example, has visited China six times since 2014.
Although the majority of commitments between China and the governments of the Middle East are still focused on energy and economic relations, this cooperation is increasingly integrating new sectors, notably defense sectors. Further, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recently announced their intention to introduce Chinese language courses into their education curriculums. What’s more revealing is that the two countries (and others, such as other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Syria and Egypt) defended Beijing’s persecution of the Uighurs last month, the majority of whom are Muslims, a crackdown that was largely condemned by the West.
This raises two questions: Why is the Middle East betting on Beijing, and to what extent can China fill the political void left by the diminishing American presence in the region?
At first glance, this new love for China is perplexing. The conservative Arab regimes have historically distrusted China and did not establish diplomatic relations until the 1980s and early 1990s. Moreover, a number of countries in the region have long maintained a strategic relationship, notably in the defense sector, with the United States. However, some American allies, particularly Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have now signed comprehensive strategic partnership agreements with China. This development is causing growing discomfort in Washington. The American government has even expressed its concerns to Israel about its cooperation with China in the field of sensitive technologies: The entry of Huawei and ZTE into the local market was considered particularly concerning.
Such episodes reveal one of the main differences between the United States and China, in terms of alliances and partnerships - at least in the Middle East. Aware of its own relative inferiority on the regional scene, China avoids putting itself in situations that would require governments to choose between the two powers - an approach opposite from that of the Americans, who often tend to push their allies to make precisely such a choice, leading the majority of Middle East governments to seek a balance between the two countries and risk creating frictions with both.
Several factors currently make China an interesting partner for the countries of the region. First, China has a dynamic and growing economy and leaders who are turning out to be more than distrustful of popular uprisings and demands for democratization. Their main priorities in terms of foreign policy are economic integration, energy security and the protection of regional investments. In other words, Beijing wants to import goods and merchandise, not political ideas, to the Middle East. With the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings still on their minds, several regional governments have announced ambitious national plans to raise living standards, such as Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and Kuwait’s Vision 2035. China’s success in economic development without political reform is logically proving to be very attractive to the Arab autocrats.
A Transactional Approach
Furthermore, strengthening ties with China — and Russia — is an attractive option for Middle Eastern leaders at a time when relations with the West are sometimes turbulent. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Asia at the beginning of 2019, only a few months after the assassination of The Washington Post chronicler Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, is a good example of this. Shunned at that time by the West, the crown prince tried to normalize his international image by way of Asian summits. Similar logic was applied to Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s Chinese forays following his bloody 2013 coup in Egypt.
And while Iran is a very different case, the country’s isolation from the West also pushes it to cooperate more closely with Beijing. Since the United States pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions, developing closer relations with China has become more of a necessity than a choice. China, for its part, took full advantage of this and forced the Islamic Republic to accept its conditions for bilateral engagements and commercial trade.
Of course, China also seems aware of its limited capacity to play a significant role in resolving the region’s unsolvable political security issues, whether it’s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Syrian crisis. In this area, the United States remains the largest outside player. However, its strategic power is not necessarily bad news for China: In principle, there should be no major conflict between Chinese and American interests in the region. Despite its naval bases in Djibouti and Gwadar, Pakistan, China does not aspire to play a major political role in the Middle East. Especially because the stated objective of the United States to ensure regional stability, principally via its military umbrella in the Gulf, equally contributes to protecting Beijing’s economic and energy interests.
Unlike the United States, China does not enjoy a privileged relationship with any specific Middle Eastern country. As a result, its approach remains highly transactional, avoiding sensitive geopolitical issues and taking advantage of the leadership’s discontent with U.S. policy to promote its own economic interests. The question, however, is how long can such an approach be maintained in a region as unstable as the Middle East?