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China and the GCC: An Uncertain Partnership

The timing of the first-ever China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting in Riyadh on December 9 was widely covered in international media. The conference dealt with the improvement of bilateral GCC-China ties and the formation of security ties between Beijing and the GCC capitals—topics that U.S. policymakers have long warned could displace American influence in the region. In Washington, China’s increasingly close relationships with the Gulf monarchies have fueled anxieties about a new Cold War that could see China court traditional U.S. partners from the Indo-Pacific to the Middle East in an attempt to weaken American regional influence. As if to confirm these fears, Beijing amplified this narrative: during his visit to Saudi Arabia, Xi Jinping claimed that China and the Gulf states were “natural partners” and emphasized their shared interest in “defending multilateralism,” echoing Beijing’s longstanding interest in creating a new political order with lesser dependence on the United States.

Washington Remains the GCC’s Reliable Security Partner

The reality, however, is more complex. Apart from energy and trade relations, there is nothing natural or organic about the China-Gulf relationship. Although some commentators described Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia as proof of growing China-GCC security ties, the visit delivered no concrete commitments toward deepening the partnership. Chinese official statements praised the GCC’s participation in Beijing’s “Global Security Initiative,” a new, if extremely vague, foreign policy concept promoted by China since April. Apart from that, nothing new in the security or military field was announced.

Most of the discussion in Washington on the growing U.S.-China competition in the Gulf focuses on the argument that China is not an effective substitute to the United States on the Arabian Peninsula. With roughly 40,000 soldiers stationed across the region, the United States’ military footprint dwarfs anything that Beijing could bring to the table in the foreseeable future. Moreover, China does not appear interested in replacing the U.S. in its existing security roles. From the war in Yemen to the Iranian nuclear issue, Beijing has not leveraged its status as global power to play a consequential role, preferring instead to remain aloof from local politics and preserve its status as a convenient economic partner for all sides—a stance that comes with significant economic advantages but clear political costs.

Ultimately, the future of the U.S.-GCC and China-GCC relationships will not be determined by what Washington and Beijing desire to gain from the Gulf states, but rather what the Gulf states expect from the two superpowers. This formulation assumes that the GCC states can come together to put forth a coherent and inclusive international vision, which is not a given. The photo of Xi smiling with the six Gulf leaders for the summit is misleading; although the meeting emphasized intra-GCC unity, there is no unified view among Gulf states on a regional approach to China. The six GCC states surely share a common skepticism of Washington’s future commitment to the region, but their attitudes vis-à-vis China differ significantly.

A Disunited Front

The GCC states’ views toward China’s future role in the Gulf can be broadly divided into three categories. The first category, the “gamblers,” includes Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Both states are openly hedging against a U.S. retreat from the region, and both have incorporated a strategic element into their engagement with China. In addition to expanding conventional trade ties with Beijing, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have purchased missiles, drones, and military aircraft from Chinese companies—purchases that have led to frustration in Washington.

The second category is the “fence-sitters”—Qatar and Oman. Both have cultivated closer ties with China and opened their port infrastructures (at Hamad Port and Duqm port, respectively) and digital networks to Chinese operators. Qatar even purchased Chinese ballistic missiles. Overall, however, both nations have been more cautious (and less vocal) regarding the wider U.S.-China competition. In recent years, Doha’s relationship with Washington has deepened; in early 2022, Qatar was designated a major non-NATO ally in recognition of its vital role in the evacuation of U.S. troops and refugees from Afghanistan the previous year. Meanwhile, Oman, which has not bought any Chinese military equipment, signed a new strategic framework agreement with the United States in 2019 that provided the U.S. military access to the port of Duqm—a clear indication that despite Chinese investments there, Omani leaders had no intention of turning away from their Western security providers. The posture of Qatar and Oman may have less to do with a firm commitment to the United States than a wait-and-see approach that closely monitors the ongoing tensions between the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Doha and Muscat may simply wish to see how far the Gulf states can go in their China gamble.

Finally, the third category, the “cautious conservatives,” is best represented by Bahrain and Kuwait. Both nations have opened their economies to Chinese investors, including major modernization projects such as Kuwait’s Silk City. But trade relations have not led to greater strategic ties. According to the SIPRI database, China was the eighth-largest arms exporter to Bahrain over the last decade, far behind the U.S. and the European Union nations, while Kuwait did not report any military acquisitions from Beijing.

Kuwait and Bahrain may be guided by a sort of imposed pragmatism. Both have the most limited military capabilities of the GCC states, and it is no coincidence that Kuwait hosts the U.S. Army’s largest land base in the Middle East, with roughly 10,000 troops, while Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Both nations have far more to lose from aligning with China than their larger neighbors.

The state of Gulf-China affairs reveals the very different strategies pursued by each of the GCC states with regard to Beijing. This variance makes it difficult to predict a regional pattern. Arguably, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent the UAE, may be tempted to hedge further if their relations with the U.S. political establishment deteriorates.

Where the GCC Falls Short

The absence of regional consensus on China is not unique to the Gulf and mirrors similar divergences within Europe and Southeast Asia. To a certain extent, it also reflects the inability of the GCC states to “multilateralize” their relations with the United States. Despite repeated attempts from consecutive U.S. administrations over the last two decades, U.S.-Gulf cooperation remains a bilateral enterprise between Washington and each of the six Gulf monarchies. There is no reason to believe that Beijing will succeed where Washington has failed multiple times.

In the long term, uncertainty among the GCC states about their views on the U.S.-China competition will eventually test the stability of the region. The 2017-2021 crisis over the blockade of Qatar taught observers that the Gulf states struggled to find a diplomatic framework to address their foreign policy differences. The GCC as an institution proved unable to resolve the frictions among its members through diplomatic means. If the gap between GCC countries on China policy grows, the organization in its current form would no longer be a platform for consultation among its members and could instead become more divided. This does not bode well for the cohesion of the GCC states. Rather than turning the region into an arena of competition between the U.S. and China, this scenario, if it comes to pass, could encourage competition among neighboring states, with unpredictable consequences for the future of U.S. and Chinese involvement in the region.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Jean-Loup Samaan is a Senior Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute. Prior to that, Dr. Samaan was a policy analyst at the Directorate for Strategic Affairs of the French Ministry of Defense from 2008 to 2011, research advisor at the NATO Defense College from 2011 to 2016, and associate professor in strategic studies detached by the US Near East South Asia Center to the UAE National Defense College from 2016 to 2021. His most recent book (co-authored with Frédéric Grare), The Indian Ocean as a New Political and Security Region, looks at the changing geostrategic environment in the Indian Ocean region. Samaan has authored four other books and several articles and monographs for various international academic and policy journals such as Survival, Orbis, Comparative Strategy, Parameters, Politique Etrangère, and the International Spectator. He regularly gives lectures to civilian and military audiences in various countries and has been providing expertise to governments, international organizations, and private companies. Samaan is a former student of Arabic at the French Institute of Oriental Languages and the French Institute for the Near East in Beirut, Lebanon. He graduated from the Institute for Political Studies in Grenoble, holds a PhD in political science from the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, and has accreditation to supervise research from Sciences Po, Paris

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