Chinese President Xi Jinping could be wondering: what did China do for the Gulf and the Arab world to receive all this welcome and attention at the Gulf and Arab summits held in Riyadh last week?
China is a major power and the second largest economy in the world. These are two important factors in dealing with Beijing, because they can be crucial in making decisions for the near future.
Any comparison, however, between Western influence and that of China in the Middle East and North Africa leads one to conclude that the Chinese role is still marginal and non-committal. Beijing has not yet firmly anchored its options in the region, and may never do so. The Arab region is a market for Chinese goods but the political and cultural dimensions do not yet have a tangible presence there.
It is Gulf region that has taken the initiative and this had occurred much earlier than recent developments suggest. In the UAE, for example, there is a young generation of male and female sheikhs and nationals who have been studying the Chinese language for more than a decade. With the study of language comes an understanding of the culture. China, by virtue of its current and future position on the world’s economic map, is a force to be reckoned with.
Over time, Gulf interests in China have increased. As the young leadership acceded to power in Saudi Arabia, the Chinese factor became part of the change process. If you sign a contract with a Western nation you can rest assured its press will write about the deal without forgetting to bring political assessment and some criticism into it. But if you sign a similar contract with China, you will only receive a warm welcome in that country’s media.
The grid of relations with the West is complex and intertwined. Ties with the Chinese are based on interests, premised on the assumption that China does not like anyone to interfere in its internal affairs at the same time that it refrains from interfering in anyone else’s.
But China cannot provide everything. The country buys Western technologies or copies them. It is a great industrial power and the work site for world-class production, making everything less expensive. The “Made in China” label is familiar everywhere. But the West still exerts a monopoly on many advanced industries and technologies, for which there are no Chinese substitutes. Add to that the Gulf region’s security connection with the West. There are no Chinese spare parts available for British Tornadoes and there is no Chinese plane with the same specifications than the US F-35 fighter jet. Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines for COVID-19 are two western medical innovations.
The security dimension in the relationship between the Gulf and the West is a reflection of a broader and more important historical relationship. In the beginning, there was the extensive British presence in the Arabian Peninsula, or more precisely, on its shores. This passed from the Suez Canal to Bab al-Mandab and Aden, then it meandered into the Arabian Sea and the Arabian Gulf, and all the way to Basra. With the exception of Aden, the British presence was not colonial, but in agreement with the tribal forces that ruled the region and eventually morphed into governments. These governments did not have many options regarding the relationship with Britain, whether during its presence or after it withdrew. When Britain decided to withdraw from east of Suez, the Gulf found itself exposed to the Iranian security threat. The seventies were a period of decisive change towards the establishment of nation-states in the Gulf region. There was some uncertainty for a while due to the ambitions of the Shah, but as soon as the Iranian revolution took place and Khomeini came to power, the Washington made up its mind about the nature of the ties it should have with the Gulf. These ties, which were no longer limited to the US and Saudi Arabia, took their roots from the agreement between King Abdulaziz Al Saud and President Franklin Roosevelt to meet onboard the cruiser USS Quincy in 1945.
Once again, the Gulf did not have a choice in defining the relationship with the United States. Circumstances instead shaped this relationship and the type of protection provided by Washington, especially after the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war in 1980 and the ideological project that preceded it with Iran’s attempts at exporting its revolution to the region.
With Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and then its liberation, the Gulf states once again found themselves without many options in their relationship with the United States in particular and with the West in general.
Washington is not only the protector of the Gulf, but was the dominant political and military force in the post-Cold War world. Regardless of whether or not they were happy with many aspects of the relationship, the Gulf states were practically forced to align themselves with the West in general and the United States in particular.
The Gulf bought its security through arms deals, the provision of military bases, investments in Western markets and constant agreement about the volume of oil production and energy prices.
But the situation in the world has changed a great deal during last ten years. Many global and regional powers emerged, with China at their forefront. This created new options for the Gulf states allowing them to reduce their almost absolute dependence on the West.
There are nuclear reactors now producing energy in the Gulf built by South Korea. Chinese drone technology has become a key product in the region’s arms factories. Chinese, Indian and Korean companies compete for oil exploration and production. The size of the Gulf market may not be large by international standards, but products coming from East Asia find a logistical hub in the Gulf.
These ten years changed the political facts on the ground. The United States remained the region’s guardian, but no longer cared much about the security and stability of its regimes.
The US administration fell for the strategic absurdity by sponsoring the “Arab Spring” project, which was quickly spearheaded by religious forces.
Then, the administration of President Barack Obama capped off its wavering in the region by signing the nuclear agreement with Iran. Washington summed up its regional posture by preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons but let pro-Iranian militias run amok almost everywhere in the Middle East. Then Washington exploited the murder of a Saudi journalist to create an atmosphere that was completely hostile to Riyadh. Were it not for considerations related to oil prices and the Ukraine war, the Joe Biden administration would have drifted away in enmity without considering what this would have meant in terms of a dangerous reversal in the balance of power in the region.
Now, we are going through some form of rehabilitation in the region. The failure of the “Arab Spring” and of political Islam was followed by the demise of attempts to sully the reputation of Saudi Arabia as Biden found himself forced to go to Jeddah to ask for flexibility in oil production in the face of a dangerous Russian challenge in the heart of Europe.
Not only did Saudi Arabia refuse to be swayed by US pressures over OPEC+ production, it also rubbed salt into the wound by presenting China as a strategic alternative to the United States.
This position has culminated in the Saudi, Gulf and Arab summits attended by President Xi and happens at a time when Washington clearly considers China its greatest strategic challenge and no longer hesitates to talk about Beijing’s endeavours to carve out an unwelcome position in the region.
What is different between now and then? In the case of the Britain’s presence in the region and the subsequent inheritance of its dominant role by the United States, the Gulf states were then without options. One Western fait accompli replaced another Western fait accompli, but with a different name.
This time around, the Gulf countries, along with many other Arab countries, have made a choice. They chose China as a strategic ally and perhaps the yuan as an alternative to the US dollar. This is more significant and far-reaching an option than simply strengthening economic relations with a rising global power.
The United States no longer minces its words as it spells out its position on China. This has led in many instances to thinly-veiled hostility towards those who present China as an alternative choice.
America’s position on China differs from its position on Russia. Coordination with Russian President Vladimir Putin through OPEC+ remains limited to immediate interests. But changing the options, or even just threatening to do so, cannot be easily swallowed by the United States.
The Gulf states sent a strongly-worded message by insisting on separating the oil market from politics. The United States seemed to understand the message and began to act accordingly. The Gulf message about the relationship with China is a different issue, because it is a big step toward moving away from the relationship with the United States.
Perhaps the realisation of the seriousness of this message was illustrated by the absence of a number of Gulf and Arab leaders from the last two Arab and Gulf summits, as they felt no interest in entering into a conflict with their traditional US ally.
The warm welcome that President Xi received was more an expression of anger at the United States than a celebration of a major breakthrough in China’s relationship with the region. Perhaps a little patience over the matter will be more than warranted at this stage.
The author is the editor in chief of Arab Weekly and Middle East on Line