“China is not pursuing any geopolitical self-interest in the Middle East. There should also be no power vacuum created by the United States that the People’s Republic is trying to fill.” This quote is from a recently published strategy paper by the Chinese leadership on China’s relations with the MENA region. It was made public shortly after newly re-elected leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia. The reason for the visit was the start of the first China-Arabia summit, which the Chinese Foreign Ministry described as a “milestone”.
The timing shows how important the visit was for Beijing: At home, the Chinese President was under massive pressure with nationwide protests against the government’s Corona course, but the party leader stuck to his trip.
Beijing is very interested in expanding its relations in the Gulf region, where the US traditionally has a lot of influence. Relations between the Saudi kingdom and the US have been strained since the oil-exporting countries led by Riyadh and Moscow cut crude oil production despite the rise in prices.
The report on Sino-Arab cooperation from Beijing reads at times as a response to US President Joe Biden’s promise made during his trip to Saudi Arabia last July: “We will not back down and leave a vacuum that… filled by China, Russia or Iran,” Biden said. During the US election campaign, he had described the Saudi crown prince as a “scoundrel” because of the journalist’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi. In the summer of 2022, he then assured an “active” and “principled” US leadership in the region.
For the United States, a presence in the Middle East has been important in recent decades, primarily to guarantee timely oil deliveries and to act more effectively against threats of terrorism. Now, in addition to the conflict with Russia, there is another dimension: the systemic conflict with China. Within a few years, the country has established itself as a new global power in the Arab world.
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine accelerated US withdrawal from the Middle East and North Africa, Gulf monarchies became increasingly fixated on diversifying their partnerships, towards Asia and China in particular. China is already a major economic partner of the Gulf: in 2020 it overtook the European Union as the Gulf monarchies’ largest trading partner with bilateral trade worth US$161.4 billion and has contributed nearly US$25 billion to the Gulf over the past 17 years Monarchies invest years.
In the Chinese strategy paper, Beijing presents its concept for the MENA region as follows: China supports regional countries only to work in solidarity to solve regional security problems and to help the people find their own development path “independent and autonomous”: “China has always believed that there is no ‘power vacuum’ in the Middle East and that the people of the Middle East are the masters of their future and the destiny of the region.”
It is implicitly reacting to the feeling that the young generation of rulers in Saudi Arabia is increasingly openly articulating: they want to speak to their partners as equals. Prior to Biden’s visit, Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, the Saudi Ambassador to Washington, had stated that the days when US-Saudi relations could be defined by the outdated “oil for security” paradigm were long gone.
The contact with the Chinese was therefore more pleasant. Party leader Xi Jinping sets no moral imperatives, calls for no human rights, fighting corruption or privatizing the industry. But his visit should be followed by deals worth millions. For a long time, China pursued a relatively cautious foreign policy in the Middle East. Beijing is now talking to Saudi Arabia about a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” Beijing’s goal is to secure access to energy and resources and expand new trade and supply routes in the region.
Since ties began in 1990, trade between China and Saudi Arabia has increased more than 200-fold. The kingdom is China’s largest trading partner in the Middle East and North Africa and the most important supplier of crude oil. China is in turn Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, in 2021 almost 30 percent of its total exports went to the country. Trade is still largely limited to raw materials and chemicals. However, the cooperation is to be expanded particularly in future technologies and armaments – a development that Washington is unlikely to like.
Most Gulf countries have signed strategic partnership agreements with Beijing. China has invested in the ports and free trade zones of Jebel Ali (UAE) and Duqm (Oman) and, through Cosco Shipping Ports, has acquired a 20 percent stake in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Gateway Terminal – the largest terminal in the Port of Jeddah, serving as the country’s largest port. Despite an overall significant slowdown in funding from China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Beijing has kept many of its BRI promises to Saudi Arabia. While countries like Egypt saw investment fall to zero last year, Saudi Arabia was the largest single recipient of BRI funds at around $5.5 billion.
In recent years, both sides have also synchronized their investment programs “New Silk Road” and “Saudi Vision 2030”, the king’s son’s modernization plan. However, larger investments in the region should ensure that Beijing could finally give up its principle of non-interference. Beijing has a strong pull on the Gulf, with its much-vaunted vision of the Arabian Peninsula as a region of crucial long-term geostrategic importance for global connectivity, and on Saudi Arabia in particular as a leader and gateway to the broader Arab and Islamic world.
China has ostensibly positioned itself on an equal footing with the Gulf monarchies while at the same time claiming that Washington’s attitude towards the region is one of instrumentalism and arrogance. At least on a rhetorical level, China and the Gulf monarchies share the vision of a multipolar world order in which the preservation and expansion of globalization and connectivity have priority. The evolving China-Gulf relationship demonstrates the importance of multipolarity for Gulf monarchies, which confidently reject the expectation of choosing sides. It is clear that half-hearted, half-supported US ultimatums are unlikely to persuade monarchies to reverse course on China. European governments should recognize that to compete with China’s influence in the Gulf, they should focus on their own added value and leverage their strengths – both as an economic and security partner – against the weaknesses of China’s offerings.
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