The United States is no longer the sole superpower active in the Arab Gulf.
This was the message from a weekend summit in Saudi Arabia between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Arab leaders. Participants called it a “milestone,” cementing political ties and paving the way for a larger Chinese role in Arab economies and security.
The Arab embrace of a more assertive China is a response both to criticism from U.S. President Biden’s administration and to Washington’s strategic pivot away from the Middle East toward Asia and Europe. More than that, what some observers are calling an “Arab-China renaissance” represents a bid by Gulf leaders for something they say the United States is failing to provide: a reliable partnership that won’t waver with the political winds.
“With China you know where you stand,” says one Saudi official who preferred to remain anonymous. “Not four years of being allies then four years of being called a pariah.”
Saudi Arabia’s very public welcome of President Xi, offering pomp, pageantry, and three regional summits, is likely to spark unease in Washington. Only last month, U.S. Undersecretary for Defense Colin Kahl warned in an address to regional policymakers that cooperation with China, “once it crosses a certain threshold … creates security threats for us.”
“Raising the ceiling too much with Beijing will lower the ceiling with the U.S.,” he cautioned at the Manama Dialogue conference in Bahrain, “not for punitive reasons but because of our interests.”
In a sign of warming ties that have been years in the making, Saudi Arabia and China signed 34 agreements, including a “comprehensive strategic partnership agreement,” in which Beijing and Riyadh pledged support and solidarity for each other’s core national interests, opening the door to security cooperation.
Individually, Gulf states have been quietly building economic and diplomatic ties with China for the past two decades. China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trade partner and oil market, for example. But they have been careful not to upset their strategic balance with Washington.
Now, after enjoying a purely economic relationship, Saudi Arabia has accelerated strategic cooperation between China, the Gulf, and the wider Arab region, using its sway as the only country that can gather all Arab leaders on two weeks’ notice.
Though the summits did not go so far as to replace the United States as the region’s strategic partner, nor exchange Arab leaders’ commitment to a U.S.-led international order for a Chinese one, “this was an expansion of ties with China in every direction. It was unprecedented,” says Mohammed Alyahya, a Saudi analyst at Harvard University’s Belfer Center.
Underlying the shift is a sense, gaining ground in Riyadh, that the United States is a “sometimes partner,” friendly only when it needs more oil or Saudi political support in a crisis.
China, with its one-party system and autocratic rule, seems to offer the kind of constancy and predictability that Gulf sheikhs prefer. It is a constancy, they feel, that stands in stark contrast to America’s shifting foreign policy over the past decade.
Gulf and Saudi officials point to Washington’s multiple “pivots” away from the region – deepening a sense that America’s security umbrella is unreliable.
They also resent what they see as U.S. opportunism. Though Mr. Biden had said while campaigning for the presidency that he would make Saudi Arabia “a pariah” because of its human rights record, he sought to mend fences in the face of an energy crisis last summer. Gulf officials also point to the United States’ lack of interest in the threat of Iranian drones striking critical Saudi Arabian oil facilities in 2018, compared to American concern now with Russia’s use of Iranian drones in Ukraine.
Beyond investment deals, the weekend summits saw Beijing and Arab states converge on geopolitical issues, feeding a desire by Gulf states to be seen as more than oil spigots and arms markets.
A summit of 20 Arab leaders and Mr. Xi, hosted by the Saudi crown prince on Friday, which Mr. Xi called a “defining event in the history of Chinese-Arab relations,” agreed on a 24-point declaration of commitment to intensify Arab-Chinese cooperation on each other’s “core interests.”
These included committing to “non-interference” in internal affairs, supporting China’s policies in Hong Kong, “strengthen[ing] cooperation to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” ensuring Tehran adheres to “the principles of good neighborliness,” and “reject[ing] of independence for Taiwan in all its forms” from the Arab states.
The leaders also found common ground on an issue that divides Gulf states and the United States – human rights.
In their summit statement, China and Arab states insisted on “human rights based on equality and mutual respect” and stressed their strong “rejection of the politicization of human rights issues and their use as a tool to exercise pressure on countries and to interfere in their internal affairs.”
Policymakers in Washington have already flagged growing Chinese influence in the Arab Gulf as a security, cyber security, and surveillance threat to America’s military and defense; a deal between Saudi Arabia and Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei will deepen those concerns.
Amid U.S. worries, Saudi observers say Riyadh is determined to seize the opportunity of an assertive China’s interest in the region to cement long-term Chinese investment in Gulf infrastructure, robotics, and nuclear energy.
“Saudi Arabia and Arab states are trying to adapt and balance between these two superpowers and this will be no easy task,” says Saudi political scientist Hesham Alghannam.
“But, at the end of the day, you need to work with China. Needs on both sides are driving increased cooperation, and it is serious this time,” he adds.
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The United States is no longer the sole superpower active in the Arab Gulf.