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Stuck In the Middle: Should the US Be Worried About China’s Increasing Importance in the Middle East

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Deep Dive Article

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In July 2022, President Biden was met with a frosty reception when visiting Saudi Arabia hoping to boost oil production in the face of Vladimir Putin’s War in Ukraine. The announcement of oil cuts immediately after the state visit was a humiliation for Biden and prompted his team to announce that they would “reassess” the relationship with the oil-rich state. Five months later, on December 9th, Xi Jinping visited Riyadh and left with a stack of investments, partnership agreements, renewed talks on trade and even a future deal to supply drones. While the meeting itself had been delayed since 2020 due to concerns over COVID-19, it came off the back of massive amounts of investment in the oil rich gulf states and sent alarm bells ringing in Washington. But should America be worried?

Since the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist, by order of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2018, and Donald Trump’s incoherent foreign policy, the Saudi’s have seen the US as an increasingly unreliable ally. While Joe Biden did bring back some semblance of stability to America’s role in the region, his desire to distance his presidency from the Saudi regime has raised eyebrows, and some of his actions, such as removing Houthi groups from terrorist watchlists have not gone down well with the desert kingdom. Three consecutive presidents have talked about winding down in the Middle East and yet, while America certainly wants to scale back its commitment in the region, it is just as concerned as preventing another great power from filling the vacuum.

This has certainly led to some frustrations among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an alliance of oil-rich monarchies in the Gulf, who are eager to counter Iran’s aggression. From the Saudi perspective, the United States is being unreasonable. The US wishes to step back from its strategic commitments yet is also incredibly concerned when gulf states buy weapons from other powers. America has cared little about China’s economic involvement in the past. The value of China’s bilateral trade with GCC states and Iran in 2021 was $248 billion USD, four times greater than the US The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an infrastructure plan with which China seeks to dominate global trade, also has many key corridors through the Middle East and as a result has seen massive Chinese investment in many commercial and infrastructure projects across the region. China, after all, has long been a foil for US investment, which often comes attached with political strings and guarantees on human rights, of which the kingdom is not fond of. Yet, while the US seems content with allowing this enhanced Chinese economic presence, they have voiced deep concern about increasing cooperation over military hardware and strategic communications, such as using Huawei networks, which the US sees as a security risk. The US has reportedly asked the UAE to remove Huawei from its networks from 2025, saying it will limit America’s ability to share information or technology.

On the face of it, this increased Chinese interest in the middle east looks like a threat to America’s position, seeking to take advantage of the power vacuum as the US pivots to the Asia-Pacific. However, claims that this represents a new geopolitical power move by Xi Jinping are exaggerated. It is no doubt, China wishing to establish an international order that rivals that of the West, but it neither wants to, nor can, displace America’s security role in the region for the Saudis or the GCC.

Ultimately, despite the inconsistency of America’s approach to the gulf, and the frustration it causes, the GCC is reliant on US support to uphold their security apparatus. The United States, NATO, and Western allies are still by far the GCC’s biggest arms supplier, and both the US and UK have a substantial military presence in the Gulf. China accounts for less than 2% of GCC arms imports. While China arguably has a more important economic relationship with the GCC, its influence and trade stability is dependent on the presence of a US security umbrella. China, meanwhile, could not replace America as the key strategic ally in the region, as so far only the US has demonstrated a desire to counter Iran’s influence, a key goal of GCC states. China, on the other hand, has become an important ally of Iran, and while they have demonstrated a desire to balance relations between both regional powers, they could not offer the same level of support as the US does. And, ultimately, China has learnt from the mistakes of the American foreign policy in the Middle East. China is acutely aware of the instability and unpredictability of the Middle East and is thus reluctant to commit to any long-term military plans in the region.

The US and Saudi Arabia are going through a rough patch, yet both sides are still attached at the hip. While this may be a better time than any for China to step in as an alternative to US influence, China’s interest is limited to strengthening ties with states it sees as vital energy suppliers or BRI members, while still not committing to a region it sees as volatile. It seems unwilling or unable to offer the same level of support to the Saudis as the US and for now, sees the US security umbrella as a greater benefit than a hindrance. There is no doubt that both the Saudis and the Americans would prefer a more reliable ally, and with Gulf states feeling assertive and the US re-energised by the war in Ukraine, both have in little mood to compromise. Yet with the US thirsty for Gulf oil, and Saudi Arabia keen to keep US strategic interest, neither side is willing to abandon the partnership just yet.


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