China’s involvement in the Middle East has reshaped the region’s landscape, expanding beyond traditional energy sources to encompass economic, geopolitical, and strategic considerations. The country’s “non-interventionist” approach is appealing to Middle Eastern states, which view their growing ties with Beijing as a means of diversification. However, China’s increasing engagement poses a threat to US interests in the region and its relationships with traditional allies.
While the Indo-Pacific has become a focal point of the United States’ overseas strategy and diplomacy in recent years, China has emerged as a significant player in the Middle East, reshaping regional security dynamics through increased involvement. China’s interests in the region extend beyond traditional energy sources and encompass economic, geopolitical, and strategic considerations. In fact, China has signed strategic partnerships and memoranda of understanding for its economic activities with most Middle Eastern countries. This is not a new trend. China established closer relationships with various regional organizations over the past two decades, including the China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Strategic Dialogue in 2010 and, even earlier, the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) in 2004. Meanwhile, its 2016 Arab paper policy has been a roadmap to the country’s regional interests and policies.
Recent diplomatic initiatives by China demonstrate Beijing’s deep investment in continuing to develop relations with countries in the Middle East. In 2022, China held its first China-Arab States Summit and its first China-GCC Summit, showcasing its commitment to fostering strategic partnerships in the region and promoting economic development beyond its traditional energy interests. The increasing involvement of China in the Middle East is a significant factor shaping the region’s geopolitical landscape and has substantial implications for global politics, and is evidence that China’s economic and political interests have expanded globally under its efforts to secure access to vital resources and markets in the Middle East.
Economics and Infrastructure
In the economic domain, China increased its trade with the region and, in 2020, replaced the European Union as the GCC’s largest trading partner with bilateral trade. Additionally, China is now Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s largest non-oil trading partner globally, and the UAE remained China’s second-largest trading partner. At the same time, a free trade agreement (FTA) with GCC members has been high on the list of China’s diplomatic agenda.
In addition, Beijing has also expanded its investment ventures in the Middle East through its poster child, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has become a vital tool of Chinese foreign policy. The Middle East is especially important to the maritime element of the BRI (MSRI) due to China’s dependency on energy imports. In fact, according to the China BRI Investment Report 2021, the majority of Chinese BRI investment projects in 2021 targeted the MENA region. In 2022, Middle Eastern countries expanded their cooperation with China and received about 23 percent of Chinese BRI engagement, up from 16.5 percent in the previous year. China has invested in the Red Sea Gateway Terminal––a joint venture between China’s COSCO Shipping Ports and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund to develop and operate a container terminal at Jeddah Islamic Port––while other projects include those in the TEDA area of the Suez Canal Authority and the operation of the new port terminal in Haifa Bay. At the same time, Iraq was the top recipient of China’s BRI financing for infrastructure projects in 2021, with about $10.5 billion in construction contracts. China further sought to invest $10 billion in infrastructure projects in the Autonomous Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq. Of great significance has been the Iran-China “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” agreement, which is estimated to be $400 billion, corresponding to 10 percent of China’s total BRI budget and stipulates the joint development of the port of Chabahar and a new oil terminal near the Jask port, south of the Strait of Hormuz. This constitutes an exciting new development since the port was traditionally under a long-term contract with India.
Beijing also has big plans to extend its digital footprint to the region. The Middle East plays a prominent role in China’s Digital Silk Road under which Chinese companies have secured 5G deals with the GCC countries. China has also been collaborating in strengthening local cyber strategies with the UAE. These agreements contribute to China’s transition to a technological power of its magnitude, upending its “copycat” label. The focus on technology has been important for both sides. While China seeks to expand its role as a high-tech power and use data as a tool to promote economic transformation and development, Middle Eastern countries are increasingly looking to digitize and diversify their economies. In fact, Saudi Arabia is now supporting Chinese investments in advanced technology and research. China has also boosted its cooperation with Israel in technology and infrastructure, raising concerns in Washington around security cooperation between the two countries.
As one of the world’s leading powers, China has a vested interest in maintaining peace and stability in the Middle East given its reliance on oil imports from the region. Simultaneously, Middle Eastern countries have increasingly found China’s principle of non-interference and commitment to safeguarding common interests through independence and autonomy to be an appealing option as they seek to diversify their economic and security ties. This approach aligns with the Middle Eastern countries’ desire for greater autonomy and flexibility in their foreign relations. Hence, China’s position as a neutral, non-aligned player in the region has given Beijing a unique ability to increase its engagement in peace promotion and mediation efforts over recent years in some of the region’s most high-profile conflicts, such as those in Syria and Yemen, the peace negotiation in Afghanistan, and of course, the JCPOA negotiations. Its biggest achievement, however, has been fostering an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia in 2023.
This diplomatic “victory” managed to defuse regional tensions and bring Middle Eastern countries closer to Beijing’s sphere of influence. By advocating that oil transactions take place in yuan, stirring Saudi Arabia and Iran’s willingness to join BRICS, as well as attempting to push for the “de-dollarization” of the international economy, China continues to pursue multipolarity, an essential priority of its foreign policy. Despite the United States’ optimistic outlook on the new agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, citing its potential “to help reduce tensions, avoid conflict, and curb in any way dangerous or destabilizing actions by Iran,” there are concerns in Washington in regards to the way the agreement has been portrayed in Iranian news outlets as a “strategic peace” against US hegemony.
Meanwhile, in the military domain, China has increased its arms sales to the Middle East, conducted military exercises with the region’s two most prominent actors (Saudi Arabia and Iran, accompanied by Russia), and promoted joint weapons production. These developments are crucial, given the stalemate in the United States’ relations with Middle East countries and its refusal to sell them more advanced weapons, a gap that China has rushed to fill by exporting advanced weapons, including Dongfeng ballistic missiles and Wing Loong Bomber drones, to several regional states. Such exports indicate that China’s supply of arms to countries frequently subjected to international sanctions or embargoes falls under its non-interference principle, making it a preferred exporter for the region’s countries. Notwithstanding, three countries from the Middle East––Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar––have become members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the largest and most populous regional cooperation organization which has been considered as a counterweight to US interests in Eurasia. Others have already expressed their willingness to do so, indicating stronger alignment with Beijing and Moscow and an intention to counter American influence in the wider region.
Finally, China has advanced its soft power projection in the region with a number of humanitarian initiatives, recognizing that soft power is essential for its status as a great power. Such initiatives include medical aid during the COVID-19 pandemic, cultural promotion with a focus on strengthening people-to-people relations mainly through tourism which has seen a surge in the recent years, educational initiatives through university exchanges and cooperation, and the establishment of Confucius institutes in the Middle East (numbering fifteen as of 2021). All of these initiatives constitute an attempt to secure a positive image in the region and highlight China’s role as a responsible power and a trustworthy partner.
Implications for the United States
The growing presence of China in the Middle East has significant implications for various regional actors—including Russia, one of its closest partners—especially regarding arms sales. Some of Russia’s most critical weapons importers may prefer China as a source, which could strain the relationship between the two countries in the midst of the war in Ukraine. In addition, a potential closer convergence of Middle Eastern states could give rise to new regional dynamics and create significant tensions, particularly for Israel, and by extension, the United States. As China strengthens its economic ties with the Middle East, it will seek to challenge the United States’ predominance in the region. However, given their reliance on US military bases and weapons imports, Arab states are unlikely to fully annul their security relationship with the United States in the short term. Another key development is that Iran’s improved relations with Middle Eastern states and expanding trade and military cooperation with China and Russia will likely render the JCPOA obsolete.
The future of US foreign policy in the Middle East is highly contingent on the new administration’s approach, specifically regarding their strategy for engaging with Arab states and managing tensions with Iran. One possible strategy is a “divide and conquer” approach, as adopted under Trump’s administration, which seeks to isolate Iran and strengthen alliances with Arab states. Another approach could be more isolationist, as seen under Biden, in which US involvement in the region is deprioritized. However, given the current security dynamics, the United States should adopt a more nuanced approach prioritizing diplomacy and multilateralism as the most effective means of promoting stability. As such, the return to the JCPOA with Iran would be more conducive to securing US national interests and would have a positive impact on its relations with other countries in the Middle East.
The United States should provide its allies and partners in the region with viable alternatives to Chinese initiatives. This can be accomplished by increasing investments in the region, particularly in telecommunications and infrastructure. In addition, it is essential not to take a confrontational approach towards China’s role in the region. Instead, the United States should lead by attraction rather than coercion and allow countries in the Middle East to freely choose between it and China. This can be achieved through the promotion of cultural and educational initiatives to foster mutual understanding and appreciation for each other’s traditions and values, sports diplomacy given the Middle East’s expanding participation in international sporting events, and through development aid to counter China’s infrastructure offensive in the Middle East. In doing so, the United States can establish itself as a dependable partner, creating stronger relationships with countries in the Middle East.
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Mohammad Eslami is a collaborative researcher at the Research Center for Political Science (CICP) at Minho University.
Maria (Mary) Papageorgiou is an associate lecturer at University College London (UCL) specializing in International Relations and Research Methods. She is also a collaborative researcher at the Research Center for Political Science (CICP) at Minho University.
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