Washington’s Middle East allies could have little choice with 5G

Currently in ‘cold war’ with China, US deems its version of telecommunications system a security concern

Workers install 5G telecommunications equipment on a T-Mobile tower in Seabrook, Texas. May 6, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/ADREES LATIF)
Workers install 5G telecommunications equipment on a T-Mobile tower in Seabrook, Texas. May 6, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/ADREES LATIF)
The US is pressing its allies in the Middle East to join about 30 other nations in foregoing the Chinese version of 5G, the newest technology for cellular networks, claiming that a law in China can compromise their data and security.
These states will thus find themselves having to choose between Beijing, a major investor in the region, and Washington, their security guarantor, which believes its own security could be breached via allies using a Chinese system.
“It’s every country’s own decision,” US Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment Keith Krach told The Media Line, adding, however: “We want to warn them against using Chinese 5G for their own national security.”
It’s not just a warning, though.
When asked how serious the US was in saying that it could sever ties with allies that disagree, Krach replied: “It’s very serious.”
One of those allies is Israel.
Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Jewish state has made China its third-largest trading partner. The Asian giant has invested huge sums in infrastructure projects and start-ups in Israel – some of them so sensitive that they drew concern in Washington for potentially putting US military operations in the area at risk.
When Netanyahu formed a government in April after two swings and misses, the first meeting set up by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman was not with him or his coalition partner, Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz – it was with Yoaz Hendel, the communications minister. The goal was to pressure Hendel to stay away from China when issuing 5G tenders.
“I think Amb. Friedman’s move is highly symbolic because 5G is highly strategic to the United States, to Israel and nations around world – to their national security and sovereignty – because with the capabilities of 5G, it’s touching all your communications,” Krach told The Media Line.
“It’s the backbone for the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state. It extends the great China firewall when you hook up apps, microphones and cameras. We’re banging the drum on that,” he stated.
“It’s every country’s right to choose who they want to go with… but the risks are enormous,” he said.
By all indications, Israel and the US are days away from signing a memorandum of understanding according to which Israel will block the use of Chinese equipment in its 5G networks.
This shift away from China has been swift and dramatic (although there are other reasons, such as Chinese deals with Israel’s archenemy, Iran). But are the Israelis – along with other allies in the region – becoming a pawn in America’s trade war with China?
“I don’t see a trade war,” Krach said. “I see a real and urgent threat to democracies around the world. It is about Israel’s national security. I mean Israel, pound-for-pound, has the most technology in the world.”
The US is seeking to root out Chinese involvement in 5G as part of its Clean Network Initiative, announced in April. It says that China is among a group of malign actors looking to use the technology and other internet and communications infrastructure to spy on customers and siphon off sensitive military, political and economic information.
The Chinese law cited by the US allows Beijing to force any of the country’s companies, state-owned or otherwise, to provide such data to the government on demand. The US, therefore, has stated its preference 5G systems from domestic or European vendors.
Washington has made its concerns known to the Gulf states as well, but perhaps not so publicly.
Pre-pandemic, these countries supplied 28% of China’s oil imports, and the Chinese economy is now bouncing back more rapidly than that of the US and the European Union.
Yet like Israel, Gulf states are dependent on security partnerships with the US because of their common enemy, Iran.
The US boosted its 40,000-troop deployment in the Gulf following what is believed to have been a 2019 Iranian strike on Saudi oil facilities, sending soldiers to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The forward headquarters of its Central Command is in Qatar, and its Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain.
This tug-of-war for influence is going to force US allies to pick a partner, but they are going to put off a decision for as long as they can and use as much leverage as they can in the process.
“I think it would be useful first to remind ourselves that these countries have agency and some leverage of their own,” John Calabrese, director of the Middle East Institute’s Middle East-Asia Project, told The Media Line. “So apart from the issue of how China will approach this contest is the question of its Gulf partners' calculations.”
Gulf Cooperation Council states have been preparing for higher-profile roles on the global stage. These nations have spent the past decade pouring their oil wealth into investments in their digital infrastructure, partially with an eye toward showcasing development through events like the 2022 FIFA World Cup, to be held in Qatar; the UAE’s Dubai Expo 2020 (which was postponed until 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic); and Saudi Arabia’s 2020 G20 presidency, with a summit in Riyadh coming up in November.
The Saudis are keen on transforming themselves into the region’s digital hub. Last year, the kingdom’s leading carrier partnered with China’s Huawei for a 20-city, 2,000-tower 5G introductory project, giving Saudi Arabia the largest 5G network in its corner of the world.
The UAE was preparing to host more than 25 million visitors to Expo 2020, and its two biggest telecoms signed 5G deployment deals with Huawei. The first end-to-end 5G call in the region took place last year courtesy of the UAE’s Etisalat telecom.
The 2022 World Cup is a massive undertaking, and Qatar wants to include 5G. One of its two main telecoms, Vodafone, partnered with Huawei to deploy 5G networks in the capital, Doha, and in scores of other locations.
So how much would a Gulf withdrawal from China on the 5G front impact Beijing’s long-term plans for the region?
“A departure point for considering Beijing's possible approach is to recognize that Chinese interests in the Middle East are far more extensive and of greater importance than any one sector, much less any single company,” The Middle East Institute’s Calabrese noted.
“That said, it seems to me that the central battleground on which the US-China rivalry will play out is the field of advanced technology,” he went on. “The stakes are quite high in the longer term for the US and for China, given the historical evidence that technological breakthroughs and innovations can produce enormously valuable civilian-military synergies.”
For now, it seems that the US has a leg up on China in the 5G war. The United Kingdom and France announced recently that they would take America’s “clean” path, as did the three biggest telecoms in Singapore and Canada.
“There are around 30 countries that have already made the decision to go clean,” Krach told The Media Line, citing several European states. “In February, Huawei announced [it] had 91 5G contracts. They’re down to 30-something. Those deals are evaporating.”
The remaining countries, including some Gulf states, may be hanging on to see if the upcoming US election leads to a Joe Biden administration and a possible change in the aggressive US posture toward China. In the meantime, Beijing is looking to recoup its losses by turning to Iran, with the two sides recently drafting a monumental trade and security partnership, undercutting US efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic.
If there is one country that is not much interested in US threats about its telecommunications alliances, it is apparently Iran.
But the move gives the US another talking point when it comes to its allies in the Middle East: Why do business with China when it is doing business with your number-one enemy? In fact, Washington is asking its Gulf allies why America needs to be pressing them on Chinese 5G at all.