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The Pitfalls of China’s Top-Level Engagement in the Gulf

In the wake of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, there have been some fears in the U.S. security establishment that the U.S. might cede influence in the Middle East to China. For some, this must be addressed if President Joe Biden is to “pivot” and transfer U.S. assets to East Asia.

This view is far too simplistic and overlooks China’s present engagement with the Middle East. Moreover, it ignores how its limited involvement with regional societies might undermine any push for greater regional influence.  Indeed, should Beijing persist in its current approach, it risks ending up on the wrong side, especially if current leaderships are replaced.

Premature Worries of Chinese Primacy

To be sure, China’s presence in the Middle East has grown in recent decades. However, those connections remain primarily economic, expanding from trade in energy products to investment in other sectors, including large-scale infrastructure projects associated with its Belt and Road Initiative.

Chinese engagement with the Gulf has also become more deliberate, leading to closer ties and cooperation with crucial governments in the region. Indeed, Beijing has established comprehensive strategic partnerships—the highest form of engagement it can offer—with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran.

Despite this, there is little sign yet that closer cooperation between these governments and China will significantly transform Beijing’s role in the region. Except for Iran, most of these countries are close American partners and do not see China as a substitute for the security provided by the U.S. As such, Arab leaders in the Gulf doubt that China will replace the U.S., even as its commercial sway has risen under the American security umbrella. Any outreach by Gulf states to Beijing reflects not only the volatile and multipolar nature of the region, but also wariness and concern at American commitment—a perennial phenomenon present under Biden’s predecessors, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

There is little indication that China seeks to take on the Americans’ self-appointed role as the regional security provider and guarantor. Scholars like Sun Degang and China’s former Middle East envoy, Wu Sike, point to Beijing’s unwillingness to do more than manage current regional conflicts. There appears little appetite among Chinese elites to become entangled in regional competition, let alone resolve it.

In short, then, American fears may be overstated. Besides, China’s influence in the region may have already peaked, especially if it does not start building durable and sustainable ties to the region’s populations.

Top-Down Ties

Historically, China’s relationship with the Middle East has been largely driven through state-level contact. Beijing has prioritized ties with governments over society. Given the authoritarian character of Beijing and its regional partners, this approach has benefited both. Not only does China consistently reiterate its commitment to the principle of non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs, it does so on the understanding that they do the same. As a result, China does not criticize governments for the treatment of their people, while Arab and Muslim countries have been similarly silent regarding the persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

As a result, China’s efforts at improving its image and gaining influence have been mostly top-down, through the establishment of Confucius Institutes across the region and COVID-19 diplomacy in the wake of the pandemic. There are currently fifteen Confucius Institutes in the Arab world, which provide Chinese language instruction and cultural exchange opportunities.  Gulf governments have welcomed them as a way of accessing much-needed funds in their education sector. For Beijing, Confucius Institutes allow China to frame, shape, and manage the discourse surrounding China.

But while enrollments in Chinese-funded institutions have grown, there are few signs that this has resulted in a greater public affinity towards China and its values. Instead, as Mimi Kirk observed in her study of Dubai’s Confucius Institute in 2015, most of those studying did so for instrumental reasons, such as employment or business opportunities.

Certainly, Arab public opinion as monitored by Arabbarometer in 2020 shows greater favorability towards China than the US. That may be due in part to its emphasis on economic over political matters. But it is also important that the figures are not overwhelming, only constituting a majority in Algeria and Morocco and 50% or less in Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan and Libya.

Similar ambivalence may also be evident in China’s covid diplomacy. Although Beijing provided medical equipment and advice to the Middle East in the early days of the pandemic and supplied the region with its Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines, that has not demonstrably changed public opinion toward China. Yuting Wang and Len Khalifa’s survey of UAE nationals and other Arab citizens in the UAE–one of the most important regional countries for Beijing–in late 2020 and early 2021 is useful for looking at how opinion may be shifting. It revealed that 47.7% said that their perception of China had remained the same since the outbreak, with 30.4% becoming “slightly more negative” and 15.19% becoming “much more negative”; only 7% said that their view was more positive.

China’s failure to garner greater public sympathy could damage its regional presence in the long-term and especially if its economic promise for the region goes unfulfilled. The Middle East is undergoing a period of internal convulsion, and there have been signs of a growing disconnect between states and society for some time. Weakening economies has meant less revenue for state patronage, in the form of public sector jobs or the provision of good quality public services. Absent political representation and participation, public resentment boiled over, leading to uprisings across the region in 2011. The containment of the Arab Spring notwithstanding, societal frustration has persisted; the 2018-9 protests in Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon are only the most recent manifestations of profound grievances with regional governments.

The Gulf states face similar risks to their survival, even if they have so far managed to avoid similar dissatisfaction. Managing to transition from hydrocarbon-reliant economies to diversified models while retaining the same standard of living and expectations for their citizens is not assured. Additionally, the regimes’ authoritarian character may make it harder to sufficiently gauge public opinion until it is too late. If societies conclude that leaders cannot provide them with the services and opportunities they want, they may overthrow them. If that happens, the Chinese leadership will find itself having to deal with new political elites, who may recall their predecessors’ close ties with Beijing. Considering the transactional and ambivalent attitude towards China within these societies, Beijing may find these new regimes to be less favorably disposed towards it– and with it, the prospects of China acquiring even greater influence may evaporate.

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

Guy Burton is an adjunct professor at the Brussels School of Governance and a fellow on the Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation Project at Lancaster University. Previously, he has held research and teaching positions in the UAE, Malaysia, Iraq and Palestine. His research interests cover the role and actions of emerging powers in the Middle East. He is the author of China and Middle East Conflicts (2020) and Rising Powers and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1947 (2018).

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