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COVID-19 Illuminates the Gulf’s Dilemma Between China and the US

Over the past few months as the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have been working closely with China to both combat the pandemic and protect their economies. This Gulf-China relationship, however, has left the U.S. an important partner of the Gulf states uneasy. As the global pandemic encourages a strengthening of Sino-Gulf relations, the Gulf states find themselves in a dilemma of being caught in the crossfire of the U.S.-China tensions.

Despite the U.S.’s changing role in the region, the GCC states remain important American partners and offer a counterbalance to important aspects of China’s rise. The competition between these two superpowers has been ongoing and is currently present in many fields not only politics and economy but also technology and academics; however, COVID-19 has further escalated the conflict and put the Gulf into an even more uncomfortable situation.

Gulf States Sandwiched between the US & China

On June 24th, the day when the U.S. hit its highest single-day record of new cases, China’s vaccine makers had announced their plan of going abroad for human trials because of the insufficient amount of local infections. Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinopharm has thus begun a last-stage trial of a COVID-19 vaccine in Abu Dhabi.  In addition to working together on the vaccine, the UAE and China have also sent each other medical supplies and professional support since the outbreak of the pandemic. Shenzhen BGI, a Chinese genetic firm, built a testing center in Abu Dhabi capable of tens of thousands of tests a day over the span of only 14 days. This same company has also made millions of dollars in contracts with the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. government expressed its concern regarding this strengthening relationship, creating a challenging dilemma for the UAE administration. According to Bloomberg, a U.S. official described BGI as the “Huawei of genomics,” warning BGI’s MENA-region partners to be conscious of information security. The U.S. State Department’s top diplomat to the Middle East also warned countries in the region of the “predatory” nature of Chinese aid. After addressing these critiques and concerns, and due to BGI’s involvement, the U.S. embassy in the UAE declined an offer from Abu Dhabi for hundreds of COVID-19 tests.

Picking Sides is Costly

In addition to being caught between global superpowers, the Gulf states are also facing economic challenges and need to sustain all commercial relations. The current context with low oil prices further emphasizes the importance of economic reforms in the GCC states. As a result, some of the Gulf states start to turn to the East as a strategy to diversify their economies, although whether the East could help is still unclear.

Sino-Gulf commercial relations make it a difficult decision to choose between the U.S. and China. China is an important partner for the economies of the Gulf states. Among Middle Eastern countries, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE are the top three countries for Chinese imports; the UAE and Saudi are also the two largest countries for Chinese exports. Meanwhile, China was ranked as the largest trade partner in 2017 for Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain.  

This mutual economic benefit makes both China and the Gulf very cautious regarding their relations with each other. Gulf leaders and governments avoid addressing China on humanitarian and domestic issues regardless of whether it has led to criticism. At the same time, China avoids stepping into the leadership vacuum and political conflicts in the Middle East. Last year, China turned down the chance to join the U.S and other partners in naval patrols. It is possible that China does not want regional confrontation with the U.S., and the volatile relations within the Gulf states has caused hesitation for Beijing to engage.

In regards to security issues in the region, most of the Gulf countries still choose to turn to the U.S., despite the fact that the U.S. total oil imports from the GCC have declined in the last few years. Close military relations remain between the U.S. and the GCC states, which host the U.S.’ Naval Fifth Fleet and the largest American military base in the region. Additionally, in October of  2019, the U.S. deployed about 3,000 troops to Saudi Arabia at a time of heightened tensions with Iran. Oman has signed a new deal with the U.S. last year that grants it access to the ports. Qatar and the UAE also have made new military deals with the US.

China is an indispensable trade partner for the Gulf states, while the U.S. still holds tight control over the region. Although they are uncomfortably sandwiched between two superpowers, the Gulf states have used hedging policies to maximize their interests. They turn to the East for economic cooperation and turn to the West for political allyship. The coronavirus outbreak, however, has broken this previously effective balancing strategy. As the tension between the U.S. and China continues to escalate, the Gulf states might find themselves trapped in a dilemma and challenged in maximizing their benefits from both parties.

Gefan Zhu is a graduate student at Georgetown University majoring in Arab Studies with a concentration on Society and Culture. She graduated from Beijing Language and Culture University in 2019, with a B.A in Arabic Language and Literature. Her research focuses on politics and social policies 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.

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Gefan Zhu is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University. She received her Master’s Degree from Georgetown University, majoring in Arab Studies with a concentration on Politics. She graduated from Beijing Language and Culture University in 2019, with a B.A. in Arabic Language and Literature. Her research focuses on international relations and social policies in the region.

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