All six GCC countries are playing a careful diplomatic game with the US and China, believing that they could be uniquely positioned to take advantage of the new cold war raging between the world’s two largest economies.
Like two elderly sumo wrestlers scowling at each other as they circle around the ring, so Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping are encircling the Middle East. But it’s the White House that’s worried. In June, the State Department warned US partners in the region about China’s activities, recommending that they should “take a careful look at investments, major contracts and infrastructure projects”, adding that they could “come at the expense of the region’s prosperity, stability, fiscal viability and longstanding relationship with the US”.
For several years, the Trump administration has been actively cautioning its allies not to get too close to China as rocky US-China relations, which have deteriorated considerably amid the coronavirus pandemic as both sides take swipes at each other, head towards a new Cold War. Trump’s basic thesis is that China is a strategic adversary, possibly even an enemy, and must be challenged on trade, security, next-generation technology, and diplomacy. The message of the “4Cs” is simple: China must be Challenged, Confronted and Contained.
For many Arab States that message has arrived too late. China is already the largest direct investor in the region, the largest purchaser of regional oil and the largest trading partner of Arab League states, topping $200 billion and growing. Luring its Middle East allies away from China is proving difficult for US policymakers, even though amid the escalating feud they have become increasingly assertive in trying to push its Middle Eastern partners away from China’s orbit. The relationship is simply too fruitful for both sides.
Ironically, next January will be the 42nd anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the US and China. At the time, the Soviet Union and America were the two world superpowers and it was the US that “allowed” China into the global system largely crafted by Washington. Most of the world’s power in technology and finance emanated from America at the time, but nowadays China has plenty of firepower in these areas.
Take the developing Digital Silk Road (DSR) for example. With the launch of the final satellite of the BeiDou Satellite Navigation System into orbit in late June this year, China finally completed its quest to become a space power. The system was completed six months ahead of schedule and is a competitor to the American Global Positioning System. Arab countries were the first to be offered use of this satellite coverage, which China has integrated into its Belt and Road megaproject. Last year, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt became part of the DSR. With its provision of artificial intelligence, smart cities, nanotechnology and other related fields, China has the potential to dramatically change the digital landscape of these countries.
All six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are currently playing a careful diplomatic game with the US and China, believing that they could be uniquely positioned to take advantage of the new cold war raging between the world’s two largest economies. On one hand, the United States remains a key strategic, military, economic, financial and technological partner for the region, with the GCC-US partnership extending far beyond oil trade. On the other hand, many GCC countries believe the new relationship with China complements those ties, offering further access to technologies and developments such as the DSR.
The diplomacy of the two superpowers towards members of the GCC and Iran, the elephant in the room, provides a sharp contrast. While President Trump, in his black and white world has firmly sided with the GCC, treating Iran as a pariah following America’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, a more subtle China is trying to balance its ties with the GCC and Iran. No room was left for any misunderstandings when this month top Chinese diplomat Yang Joechi arrived in Abu Dhabi to meet the UAE’s Crown Prince Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, while at precisely the same time Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif arrived in China with a major delegation, on the invitation of his counterpart Wang Yi. These talks were understood to be putting the final touches to the 25-year Sino-Iranian Comprehensive Partnership, designed to bring a windfall of investments amounting to $400 billion in various Iranian sectors in exchange for steady energy provision to China.
Abu Dhabi was carefully chosen as it’s not only a regional financial hub and the Arab world’s second largest economy, but it’s also Beijing’s major trade partner in the GCC, responsible for 28% of non-oil trade between China and the region. Thousands of Chinese companies are based in the UAE, which homes approximately 200,000 Chinese residents. China now wants to deepen its comprehensive strategic partnership with the UAE, similar to the one which it already has with Saudi Arabia.
China’s Global Times gave enthusiastic coverage to Yang’s visit to Abu Dhabi, but was relatively quiet about Zarif’s visit. It appears that the Sino-Iranian Partnership, which has the potential to be a major turning point with a far reaching impact on India and the West, is in the final stages after a gestation of four years. But there’s nothing yet on paper. It’s possible that Beijing may not wish to commit itself publicly as it doesn’t want to become entangled in regional political tensions and prefers to remain a neutral onlooker.
This would be consistent with Beijing’s current hesitancy in involving itself in regional security issues, despite its increasing centrality in the region’s economic affairs and its intensifying diplomatic presence. In keeping with this posture, China remains largely on the sidelines of the Middle East’s core geopolitical fault lines. In other words, China has managed to involve itself economically and diplomatically with almost all parties in the region while shouldering none of the security burdens and embarking on none of the security misadventures that have characterised America’s involvement in the region—such as the democratisation or containment of Iran.
Avoiding domestic political issues, especially those relating to human rights, goes both ways in discussions between China and many of its Middle Eastern partners. Most notably, Muslim-majority countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have declined to criticise China’s mass repression of its Uyghur Muslim majority in Xinjiang province. This creates a comfortable relationship between non-democracies, each refraining from criticising the other, often leaving the United States as the odd man out.
Any change at the top in Washington after the imminent presidential election is unlikely to change the situation. Recently, several influential Democratic policy voices have also turned their attention towards the likelihood of some form of extended US-China global competition, particularly in the Middle East, and many of them are hawkish on China. This leads to the distinct possibility of future raised tensions between the two countries regardless of the party in power in Washington.
In the meantime, while the GCC has historically been rooted in the US sphere of influence, their forging of increasingly close relations with China, carefully leveraging their geostrategic relations, financial powers and hydrocarbon resources, allow them to play one superpower against the other, prospering as the “in-between” states—at least for now.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.