Middle Eastern leaders seem to be in a race to gain favour with China. While the region buzzes with criticism of US policy, its political elites are busy showering China with accolades and heading 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 most engagements between China and Middle Eastern governments still focus on energy and economic relations, cooperation increasingly covers new areas such as defence. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have recently announced plans to introduce Chinese-language studies into their national educational curriculums.
More tellingly, both countries (and others in the region) have defended China’s persecution of its mainly Muslim Uighur population, a crackdown that has been widely condemned in the West.
All of this raises two questions. Why are Middle Eastern states betting on China? And to what extent can China fill the political vacuum in the region created by America’s diminishing footprint?
At first glance, Middle Eastern governments’ newfound love for China is puzzling. Conservative Arab regimes were historically suspicious of communist China, and established diplomatic relations with it only in the 1980s or early 1990s. Moreover, many countries in the region have longstanding defence ties with the United States.
Yet some of these US allies, most notably Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, have now signed comprehensive strategic partnership agreements with China.
These developments are causing growing unease in Washington. The US government has even conveyed its concerns to Israel over cooperation with China concerning sensitive technologies. The entry of the Chinese tech firms Huawei and ZTE into the Israeli market has been a particular source of concern.
Such episodes reveal one of the major differences between the US and China regarding alliances and partnerships, at least in the Middle East. Mindful of its regional inferiority vis-à-vis the US, China is avoiding placing itself in situations that would require governments to choose between the two powers.
America, by contrast, often wants its allies to make precisely such a choice. Most Middle East governments must now perform a balancing act between the two countries, which will likely generate friction with both.
Several factors currently make China an attractive partner for Middle Eastern governments. For starters, China has a dynamic, fast-growing economy and leaders who are highly suspicious of popular uprisings and democratisation.
Their top foreign-policy priorities are economic connectivity, a secure flow of energy resources, and protecting regional investments. China wants to export goods and commodities, not political ideas, to the Middle East.
Moreover, like China, many Middle Eastern regimes are trying to strengthen their legitimacy through economic growth and development rather than real political reform.
Still mindful of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings across the region, several governments have announced ambitious national development plans aimed at boosting living standards – such as Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and Kuwait’s Vision 2035.
China’s so-far successful track record of economic development without political reform understandably holds great appeal for Arab autocrats.
Finally, stronger ties with China – and Russia – are an attractive option for Middle Eastern rulers as they navigate difficult relations with the West.
Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s trip to Asia earlier this year, just a few months after the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, was a case in point.
Shunned by the West, MBS tried to normalise his international image through Asian summitry. A similar logic applied to Sisi’s Chinese forays in the aftermath of his bloody coup in Egypt in 2013.
And although Iran is a qualitatively different case, the country’s growing isolation from the West is pushing it, too, to cooperate more closely with China. Since the US withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions, closer relations with China have been a matter of necessity, not choice, for the Islamic Republic. China, in turn, has taken full advantage and forced Iran to accept its terms for bilateral engagements and trade.
At the same time, China seems aware of its limited ability to play a meaningful role in addressing the Middle East’s intractable political and security issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Syrian crisis. Here, the US is still the primary extra-regional player.
But American strength isn’t necessarily bad news for China: in principle, there should be no major conflict between Chinese and US interests in the region.
Despite having naval bases in Djibouti and in Gwadar in Pakistan, China does not aspire to any great political role in the Middle East.
Moreover, America’s declared goal of ensuring regional stability, in particular via its security umbrella in the Gulf, also helps to protect China’s economic and energy interests.
Unlike the US, China has no special relationship with any Middle Eastern country. As a result, its approach is highly transactional, avoiding sensitive geopolitical issues and capitalising on rulers’ discontent with US policy in order to advance Chinese economic interests.
In a region as volatile as the Middle East, however, the question is how long such an approach can be sustained.
Galip Dalay is a visiting scholar at the University of Oxford and a former IPC-Mercator Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). © Project Syndicate 2019.