The people of the MENA countries celebrated the soccer World Cup in Qatar as a sign that the Arab nations finally got the respect of the world. A commentator on Tunisian television said on camera: “We are the Arabs of history and the future. We are the culture and the civilization. We are the ones you learned from. We don’t say we are better, but we do refuse to be less. Respected so that you may be respected.” These statements were then shared en masse on the Internet. Pan-Arab pride ran rampant after Morocco’s semi-finals, coupled with criticism of Europe, Germany in particular. People celebrated in Dubai just as they did in Gaza, Cairo or Casablanca. The early exit of the German national team was celebrated in large parts of the Arab world.
This mood has long been reflected in political discourse. “Where is the potential in the world today?” asked the Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman in an interview with the US magazine Atlantic. His answer: “It’s in Saudi Arabia. And if you want to miss it, I think other people in the East will be very happy.”
So far, the West has been looking at this new Arab self-confidence with astonishment and questioning. The tones they hear from the region are not as obsequious as they were a few years ago. People no longer want to be dictated by Washington or Berlin with whom they do politics and business. When Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hailed the visit as a new “historic chapter” for the region. Beijing is also not shy about praising the importance of the trip, which was Xi’s first trip to Saudi Arabia since January 2016. In particular, the China-Arab states summit was described as “an epochal milestone in the history of Sino-Arab relations” by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning. Beijing described the summit as “the largest and highest-level diplomatic meeting between China and the Arab world since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.”
As tensions with the West and especially the US mount, Saudi Arabia sees China as an important alternative. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s willingness to develop bilateral ties with the Chinese side is part of our country’s strategic plans to strengthen its bilateral ties and partnerships with all influential countries and international powers and build balanced relations with them,” the statement said official route of the Saudi government.
However, the desire to look for partners outside the West is not new. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are disappointed in the West, after the Yemeni Houthi rebels launched rocket attacks on oil facilities in the Gulf, they feel abandoned by Washington. And over the past few years, there has been a constant stream of – quite justified – criticism from Europe: for example about the war that Saudi Arabia is waging in Yemen, or about the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was critical of the regime, for which the CIA blames the Saudi king’s son.
In addition, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has tipped the balance of power in favor of the Arabs. In recent months, Western governments in the Persian Gulf have been shaking hands. Germany approved arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia, even though the government had expressly ruled out arms exports to those involved in the Yemen war in its coalition agreement. While Western countries are currently struggling with rising living costs and are looking for alternatives to Russian gas, the Gulf States are benefiting from higher oil and gas prices and are driving local development initiatives – gladly with Chinese support.
At the same time, they resist being co-opted by the Western anti-Russia initiative. In Riyadh, the Ukraine war is primarily seen as a “European crisis” for which the Europeans are paying a high price. Russian security concerns are being heard in the Gulf and beyond in many Arab countries. This is because Riyadh draws the comparison between Ukraine and Yemen: Saudi Arabia wants a friendly government in Yemen with no hostile influence and no widespread military threats, a nod to Ukraine’s longstanding desire to join NATO.
Amid shifting global winds and growing great-power competition, China is keen to ensure the Arab states are on its side – or at least neutral. In particular, China wants the Arab states to advance cooperation with their new Global Development Initiative and Global Security Initiative, as well as the “Belt and Road.”
The main reason for this is economic: Beijing is pushing ahead with the “New Silk Road” project, and Mohammed bin Salman is promoting his “Vision 2030”. One has the feeling that the same consulting firm launched these two mega projects. Saudi Arabia needs foreign investment and expertise to make the economy less dependent on oil – and that’s exactly what China, which wants to steadily expand its spheres of influence, can offer.
Much of Saudi Arabia’s investment remains focused on energy, and trade is a similar story: Chinese imports from the region consist almost entirely of petrochemicals. The Gulf States are striving to shift their economies away from oil and see China as a key partner in this effort. Over the past year, it has pumped money into hotels in Oman and the automotive industry in Saudi Arabia. However, such projects are still outliers; Non-oil investments remain sluggish.
The challenge for the Gulf States now is to reconcile trade policy with China’s geopolitical power interests. On the one hand, the most populous country has become increasingly enticing. China is a large export market and a major source of investment in the Gulf. The geopolitical component, in which China serves as a strategic hedge against an unpredictable US, is less compelling: China is not an easy substitute. Moreover, in trying to pit one power against another, the Gulf leaders may end up being lulled by the US.
So far, the US doesn’t have much to fear in China’s trade and investment poker game in the Gulf region. It’s the strategic aspects that worry Washington: telecommunications, security, and increasingly defense. The Gulf states are avid customers of Huawei, the telecoms giant under American sanctions, and happy to do business with companies like SenseTime, an artificial intelligence company blacklisted by the US for its role in spying on Uyghurs in Xinjiang was set. In September, a Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund company announced a $207 million joint venture with SenseTime to build an AI lab in the kingdom.
In any case, the Saudi government is trying everything not to snub the US and the West: China is an important country, they say, and the Kingdom treats it as such. Nonetheless, many people in the Gulf States are angry at a West whose policies appear incoherent. Three consecutive US presidents have talked about reducing America’s role in the Middle East, but at the same time they don’t want other powers to gain too much influence with their departure. Such frustrations in the Gulf are understandable.
Buoyed by higher oil prices and growing economies, Gulf rulers are feeling confident that this is their moment to emerge from the US shadow, President Biden and Western governments will have to accept a greater Chinese role in the region. But both sides should recognize that China cannot fully replace the US and its partners today.
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