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Following the US policy shift to disengage from the Middle East region, which started under President Barack Obama and continued and accelerated under Donald Trump, China stepped in to fill the vacuum created and now plays a wider role in the region. China’s growing influence in the Middle East is a real challenge to US dominance in the region.
With the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, the Chinese government decided to expand its influence in the Middle East and the world in general and to provide an alternative source of financial assistance to some cash-strapped governments, helping them develop their infrastructure.
China is now the primary buyer of Middle Eastern oil, as about 72 percent of oil consumed in this vast country comes from overseas imports. As oil consumption in the rest of the world is declining and may decline further, China’s oil imports are becoming increasingly significant for Middle Eastern oil producers and so China’s geopolitical importance is growing fast.
Already China has developed comprehensive strategic partnerships with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, while its influence in Iran has increased significantly, following the signing of a 25-year cooperation plan with Tehran.
In the wake of the “Arab Spring”, China gradually expanded its engagement in the Middle East and has become the largest investor in the region and the most significant trading partner with the Arab League.
Chinese tech-companies are involved in the most important technological projects in the region such as Smart Dubai 2012 and Saudi Arabia’s National Transformation Program 2030.
As Beijing is becoming increasingly alienated by Western countries, which are trying hard to agree on a policy to halt China’s global expansion and prevent its domination of world trade, it has turned its attention to the Middle East, a region that has been neglected by Washington in the past decade.
Jonathan Fulton, assistant professor of political science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, writes: “China has established comprehensive strategic partnerships with Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, as well as strategic partnerships with Djibouti, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and Turkey. Coinciding with the expansion of the BRI, this flurry of diplomatic activity indicates that Chinese leaders increasingly perceive the Middle East as important to their political and strategic goals.”
Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a more assertive Beijing seeks to put China at the center of global trade and at the same time place the Digital Silk Road in the leading position of technological innovation, helping jumpstart digital development in the region. Telecommunication companies in Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have all partnered with Huawei to build 5G networks.
The Belt and Road Initiative envisages the creation of a vast network of railways, highways, energy pipelines and the building of 50 special economic zones. More than 60 countries have signed on BRI projects. China has already spent more than USD 200 billion on such projects, but according to some estimates this amount could rise to USD 1.2 trillion by 2027.
However, it should be mentioned that many of the projects and investments China announced within the framework of the BRI have been abandoned or heavily delayed.
In some cases, the opposition parties strongly criticized their governments for agreeing to execute costly projects in the framework of the BRI which would not bring substantial benefits to the people of their country.
Andrew Chatzky and James McBride, in a backgrounder of the Council on Foreign Relations, point out the following: “For some countries that take on large amounts of debt to fund infrastructure upgrades, BRI money is seen as a potential poisoned chalice. BRI projects are built using low-interest loans as opposed to aid grants. Some BRI investments have involved opaque bidding processes and required the use of Chinese firms. As a result, contractors have inflated costs, leading to cancelled projects and political backlash.”
Political economist Naser Al-Tamimi points out: “China’s growing economic and military power, along with its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, ensures that its global influence will only increase over time. This is why Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states view China as an important source of political support – particularly when they are embarking on diversification programmes and selective economic reforms, while resisting Western pressure on issues such as human rights and democratisation. China’s silence on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate last year reinforced Gulf states’ belief that their worldview is more closely aligned with Beijing’s than with those of their long-standing Western partners.”
China’s growing influence in the Middle East and the Gulf did not pass unnoticed in the United States, as many journalists and think tanks keep stressing the dangers it poses to US national security interests.
Last month the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed legislation which includes a provision for USD 300 million for a “Countering Chinese Influence” fund, and USD 100 million in funding for journalists and media companies to “raise awareness of and increase transparency regarding the negative impact of activities related to the Belt and Road Initiative”.
“The economic influence of the People’s Republic of China through its oil and gas imports from the Middle East, infrastructure investments, technology transfer, and arms sales provide influence and leverage that runs counter to United States interests in the region,” the legislation reads.
However, the question is whether it is already too late and China is well on the way to replace the United States as the most prominent partner of Middle East countries.