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With an Eye toward China, Ankara Dips its Toe in Military Exports to the Gulf

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia last December made headlines in the West as a surprising and alarming event. The visit was portrayed as a strategic move to bolster bilateral ties between Beijing and Riyadh at a time when China had recently signed significant investment agreements with regional countries including Morocco and Kuwait. China’s diplomatic outreach in the Gulf region follows two general themes: it seeks to incorporate the Middle East and North Africa into China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and it looks to ensure future cooperation between Beijing and regional nations across critical domains, such as energy and trade.

Beijing’s multiple-day state visits to the region are only natural, given the long-lasting history of strategic relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Gulf states and the years of regional doubt about the United States’ commitment to the Gulf’s security and bilateral ties with the GCC states. These factors have created a significant rift between the U.S. and its Middle Eastern allies, granting China an opportunity to expand its influence. Boasting a number of strategic agreements and partnerships across important sectors, such as energy supply and technology, Beijing’s footprint in the Middle East is growing rapidly in front of the West’s very eyes.

Even as Chinese-Middle Eastern ties grow stronger, another actor looms large as a new potential partner for some states in the region: Türkiye. While some leaders in the Gulf view Türkiye as a geopolitical competitor, others already made significant strides to build strategic relations with Ankara in defense, security, and commerce.

As part of its recent strategy of de-escalation, Ankara has sent diplomatic feelers out to its Middle Eastern neighbors with the hope of lowering tensions and pursuing cooperative economic policies. Indeed, Türkiye may offer some strategic advantages to Middle Eastern countries, but it remains unclear whether these benefits will allow Ankara to supplant Beijing as the region’s preferred partner.

Turkish Military Solutions as Alternatives to Chinese Systems

One sector where Türkiye maintains a comparative advantage over China, at least within the Middle East, is in its domestic arms industry. Coming from a NATO country, affordable, combat-proven military systems like those produced in Türkiye stand out as a strong alternative to Chinese systems for regional countries that seek high-end solutions with generous maintenance support and interoperability with Western forces. Turkish UAVs are an important example in this regard; the UAE has already received its first batch of Bayraktar TB-2s, and Kuwait recently signed a $370 million deal to purchase the combat-proven drones.

Another alternative nation that can provide such solutions is Israel, though its high-tech portfolio is likely less attractive than Türkiye’s, which offers lower unit costs. Engagement with Tel Aviv also carries non-negligible political drawbacks of its own. Ankara has shown an interest in increasing its military footprint in the regional arms market through foreign military sales and military-security cooperation. Within a context characterized with a desire to increase its regional status, upcoming elections, a lingering economic crisis and the need for hard currency, Türkiye seems ready and willing to carve out its share of the high-demand, profitable Middle Eastern arms market.

China Fills the Void

While the Middle Eastern market presents several opportunities for alternative countries to push their political-strategic agenda, Beijing maintains significant leverage over the “industries of the future.” These industries and services are all connected to strengthening Gulf countries’ positions in international affairs or growing regional competition, by providing them with significant strategic advantages over regional rivals such as Iran. Some areas of immediate interest include the development of critical national infrastructure, cooperation in strategic areas such as ballistic missile development programs (e.g., the ChineseSaudi partnership) and technological infrastructure, such as 5G cellular technology. Over the past few years, some regional countries such as the UAE and Kuwait have developed a deep strategic partnership with the Chinese tech giant Huawei. At times, governments like the United Arab Emirates appeared to value this cooperation more than their ongoing arms transactions discussions with the U.S., which had threatened to cut key defense exports if its Gulf partners did not abandon Huawei’s 5G network. The case of the UAE and Huawei illustrates that the need for technological sovereignty and a strong technological edge will be the driving factor in the Gulf’s diversifying partnerships. Amid an intensifying technological race and the U.S.’ hesitancy to share its technological know-how, this is a trend that can further complicate Middle Eastern-American relations in the coming years. The key is that many Gulf states desire effective systems without significant restraints on their domestic or foreign policies, and China is the only superpower that offers its military hardware without strings attached.

Another major reason behind this behavior is that unlike Washington, Beijing provides these benefits without political conditions attached—establishing itself as the neutral commercial partner of choice for all players in the region’s various conflicts. At present, neither the United States nor Türkiye would adopt such a strategy when it comes to arms exports or strategic cooperation. When it comes to the conditions of use for its military systems and their areas of use, Beijing does not have any hard requirements regarding the terms of their use. For China, arms sales are dictated by transactional and geostrategic interests—not ethics.

China has also benefited from the growing rift between Washington and its Middle Eastern partners. China’s intelligent strategic bargaining notwithstanding, the alarm U.S. policymakers feel toward growing Chinese clout is of their own making; the angst of many Gulf states toward the United States is fueled by Washington’s hesitancy to share its sensitive technologies with its regional partners. Recently, regional countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia have also taken significant initiatives to become leading actors, restricting the space for alternative countries like Türkiye to enter the market at a time where regional capacities are already growing. In fact, Abu Dhabi set up the world’s first ministry for artificial intelligence in 2017, which will mainly focus on upgrading its industry and intelligence services.

The lasting partnerships forged under the BRI only add to China’s appeal as an alternative patron for the Gulf states. At the time of writing, Beijing’s grand infrastructure investment plan includes at least 18 Middle Eastern and North African countries. Providing the countries with access to capital, infrastructure support, and foreign direct investment, the BRI strengthens the region’s dependency on Beijing in return for strategic and economic advantages that no other country can offer to the Middle East at present. In return for its largesse, China receives a safe hydrocarbon supply network amid an intensifying global energy crisis and provides the regional countries with infrastructure construction support, technology and finance inflow and a generous security and defense cooperation.

All in all, although China’s Middle East footprint was built largely on the promise of transactional gains, it will likely expand beyond commercial partnerships. For the Middle East nations, China could be an alternative superpower ally to the West. Money is flowing in with few questions asked, and regional assets such as oil are becoming key to guaranteeing support for critical military-technological projects. Rather than a simple economic transaction, Chinese-Middle Eastern relations are based on financial-strategic interests and a long-term agenda. Türkiye can use its improving relations with many of the region’s states to increase its share of the pie in the arms industry, but it cannot reverse nor replace Beijing’s growing footprint in the region. In sum, many Gulf states view China’s growing role in the region as irreplaceable. Countering Beijing in the region would only be possible with a strong commitment to the region’s security, whether from the U.S. or Türkiye, a sense of renewed trust and cooperation between the West and the regional countries, and a holistic policy to thwart Chinese influence.

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

Issue: Geopolitics
Country: GCC

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Sine Ozkarasahin is an analyst in the security and defense program at the Istanbul-based think tank, the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM). Sine holds an undergraduate degree from Leiden University and an MSc from Sciences Po Paris. Her research mainly focuses on smart defense, emerging defense technologies (with a specific focus on UCAVs) and their geopolitical implications.


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