Chinese influence in the Middle East grows as America’s presence recedes

This “has not only enriched both countries’ peoples but promoted regional peace, security, prosperity and development,” Chinese President Xi said.

 CHINESE PRESIDENT Xi Jinping meets with then-Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman during the G20 Summit in Zhejiang province, China, in 2016. (photo credit: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
CHINESE PRESIDENT Xi Jinping meets with then-Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman during the G20 Summit in Zhejiang province, China, in 2016.
(photo credit: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at Yamamah Palace in Riyadh last week, flanked by high-ranking officials. President Xi said bilateral ties with Saudi Arabia had grown “by leaps and bounds” in recent years.

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This “has not only enriched both countries’ peoples but promoted regional peace, security, prosperity and development,” Xi said, according to China’s state-run CCTV. The two leaders oversaw the signing of a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement focusing mainly on energy, to “harmonize” Saudi Arabia’s ambitious economic reform agenda, Vision 2030, with China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, the official Saudi Press Agency said.

China, the top consumer of Saudi oil, has been strengthening ties with a region that has long relied on the United States for military protection but has voiced concerns over American involvement and presence in the Middle East.

 Chinese President Xi Jinping claps after his speech as China's new Politburo Standing Committee members meet the press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China October 25, 2017. (credit: REUTERS/JASON LEE) Chinese President Xi Jinping claps after his speech as China's new Politburo Standing Committee members meet the press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China October 25, 2017. (credit: REUTERS/JASON LEE)
The weekend gatherings included a summit with the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council and broader Arab League, hosted by the 37-year-old de facto ruler of the world’s biggest oil exporter, that included in attendance Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Tunisian President Kais Saied, and Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani, among others. The massive attendance by Arab leaders was seen as a display of power and influence by MbS, as an aspiring leader of the Arab and Muslim worlds. Xi told Gulf Arab leaders that China would work to buy oil and gas in yuan, a move that would support Beijing’s goal to establish its currency internationally and weaken the US dollar’s grip on world trade.

Xi’s visit comes at a time when US-Saudi ties are at a low point

“It’s been conventional wisdom for at least the past decade, or even two, that the world – including the Middle East – has been undergoing a transition from an effectively mono-polar to a multipolar world, as US power is increasingly offset not just by Russia but China, India and possibly others like Brazil, South Africa or a more unified Europe,” Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Media Line.The contrast between Saudi Arabia’s hospitality toward the Chinese president and the reception given to US President Joe Biden is clear, and what some sarcastically dubbed the US- Saudi “fist bump summit” had a completely different feel from the strong, intimate and warm handshake between MbS and Xi. This was Xi’s third journey overseas since the coronavirus pandemic began.

A top US official warned the Gulf countries about the risks of growing too close to China. “There are certain partnerships with China that would create a ceiling to what we can do,” Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s Middle East coordinator, told a security conference in Bahrain in November.

Ibish says that Gulf states must look after their own interests first, and that’s why they arediversifying their list of allies according to their needs.“It’s possible that traditional US allies in the Middle East, particularly the three key securityallies – Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – will continue to pursue strategic diversification,reaching out to other global actors like Russia and China, and each other through agreementslike the Abraham Accords and other cooperation, but it’s also possible that there will be asustained demonstration of restored US will to act internationally.”

Despite all the assurances from President Biden that the United States will not leave the MiddleEast and will always stand with its strategic allies in the region, there are still fears thatWashington’s actions say otherwise.Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told The MediaLine that the Biden Administration is really causing a serious disruption in the relationship withSaudi Arabia, which has been central to the regional balance of power for the better part of 80years.“It reflects a sense of grievance on the part of the Saudis about American policy particularly vis-à-vis Iran and the lack of support for the situation in Yemen.”

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had asked Washington to redesignate the Yemeni Houthi rebelmovement as an international terrorist organization.Lerman says from the point of view of the Gulf states, particularly MbS and Emirati PresidentMohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, mistrust started with the “delisting of the Houthis, theresumption of negotiations with Iran with various efforts to revive the JCPOA [JointComprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal] and … the manner in which the US leftAfghanistan.”Both Gulf states have complained about a lack of US support under President Biden in theYemen conflict.

In 2019, during a debate among Democratic Party presidential candidates, Biden didn’t mince words when he said he believed that journalist Jamal Khashoggi “was murdered and dismembered … on the order of the crown prince” and that as a result, he would treat the Saudis as “the pariah that they are,” a statement that, to say the least, didn’t sit well with MbS.

“His statement has not been forgotten. But to assume that the Saudis can reverse course in their total reliance on the US in terms of military hardware and air force support, that’s steep,” says Lerman.

Hasan Awwad, a US-based Middle East affairs expert, told The Media Line that the White House did not have the region atop its agenda.

“With having to deal with many crises, the Middle East ranks fourth on the list of US foreignpolicy priorities after Asia, the Pacific, and Europe,” he said.The White House said last week that China’s attempt to amass influence in the Middle East andbeyond was “not conducive” to international order.Despite a denial from Gulf officials, the visit and meetings that took place in the desert kingdomare viewed as further proof that Beijing’s influence in the region is rapidly growing, threateningWashington’s longstanding status and interests.In July, President Biden visited Jeddah, Saudi Arabia despite his 2019 campaign pledge toostracize the kingdom over its human rights abuses.During his visit to Jeddah, the US president tried to assure the Saudis and their allies that the USwould remain fully engaged in the Middle East.‘We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran,” the Americanleader said.But less than five months later, the Chinese president has made his own official visit to thekingdom, where he inked mega-agreements between Riyadh and Beijing that worryWashington.“It is easier for authoritarian, dictatorial regimes to deal with similar-minded governments thatwon’t question their record on human rights when they want to buy weapons,” explainsAwwad, adding that “it is easier for them to do so with Moscow and Beijing; as long as theyhave their cash in hand, they have fewer restrictions on who to sell weapons to,” says Awwad.The US lambasted OPEC+’s cuts in October, accusing Saudi Arabia of “aligning with Russia” andcoercing OPEC oil producers to cut production.The question remains whether US strategic partners in the region can chart a new path forthemselves that doesn’t include Washington at the top.“Not too much. They may be looking for strategic diversification, but they still ultimately needUS support to guarantee their core national security,” Lerman says.He doesn’t believe the tension in relations is permanent. He says the constraining of ties ismeant to “rattle the United States so it does not abandon Saudi Arabia.”“That’s not what we are talking about; we are talking about an expression of dismay that isbeing manifested by shifting a little bit toward Russia and China. I don’t yet see a Chineseequivalent to the US strategic pretense,” says Lerman.