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Middle East relies on China

UNITED STATES, WASHINGTON (OBSERVATORY) — China’s foreign policy in the Middle East focuses on energy and the economy, while avoiding important geopolitical issues. However, if we talk about such an unstable region as the Middle East, the question remains how long can such an approach be followed.

Middle East leaders seem to be eager to win over China. And while the region is buzzing with criticism of US policy, its political elites are sent to Beijing to sign a wide range of bilateral agreements, for example, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has visited China six times since 2014.

Most of the relations between the governments of China and the Middle East are focused on energy and economic issues. However, cooperation is increasingly embracing new areas, such as defense. In addition, Saudi Arabia and the UAE intend to include Chinese in their national curricula. Both countries (and other countries in the region) support China’s persecution of the Muslim Uyghur population. In the West, this is widely condemned.

As a result, two questions arise. Why do Middle Eastern countries rely on China? To what extent can China fill the political vacuum in the region amid America’s departure?

To be honest, the newfound love of Middle Eastern governments for China is somewhat puzzling. Conservative Arab regimes have always been suspicious of communist China. They established diplomatic relations with him only in the 1980s or early 1990s. Moreover, many countries in the region have long-standing defense ties with the United States. Nevertheless, some of these US allies, notably Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, have signed a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with China.

These events have caused concern in Washington. The US government has informed Israel of its concerns about collaboration with China on sensitive technology. Particular attention is drawn to the entry of Chinese technology companies Huawei and ZTE into the Israeli market.

All of these episodes show one of the main differences between the US and China in terms of alliances and partnerships, at least in the Middle East. Bearing in mind its lower regional position compared to the United States, China seeks to avoid situations in which governments will have to choose between the two powers, and America often wants its allies to make this choice. The governments of most countries in the Middle East must restore balance between the two countries, which is likely to cause friction on both sides.

Several factors make China an attractive partner for Middle Eastern governments. The economy is dynamically developing in China, its leaders are very suspicious of popular uprisings and democratization. Their main foreign policy priorities are economic communications, a safe flow of energy resources, and protection of regional investments. China wants to export commodities, not political ideas, to the Middle East.

Moreover, like China, many Middle Eastern regimes are trying to strengthen their legitimacy through economic growth and development, rather than real political reforms. Bearing in mind the uprisings of the Arab Spring of 2011 throughout the region, a number of governments have announced ambitious national development plans aimed at improving living standards. This is Vision 2030 in Saudi Arabia and Vision 2035 in Kuwait. China’s achievements in economic development without political reform attract Arab autocrats.

Stronger ties with China and Russia remain an attractive option for Middle Eastern rulers, as they have a difficult relationship with the West. An example of this was the trip of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, to Asia earlier this year. This happened just a few months after the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Ben Salman, rejected by the West, tried to restore his international image.

Iran is a completely different case. Nevertheless, the country’s growing isolation from the West is pushing it toward closer cooperation with China. When the United States withdrew from the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal and reintroduced sanctions, the Islamic Republic needed closer relations with China. China took full advantage of this and forced Iran to agree to its terms of bilateral relations and trade.

Nevertheless, China is aware of its limited ability to play a significant role in resolving complex political and security problems in the Middle East. This is an Israeli-Palestinian conflict or crisis in Syria. Here, the United States remains the main player.

But America’s influence is not so bad for China: there should be no serious conflict between the interests of China and the United States in the region. Despite naval bases in Djibouti and Gwadar in Pakistan, China does not seek to expand its political role in the Middle East. America’s stated goal of regional stability helps protect China’s economic and energy interests.

Unlike the United States, China does not have any special relations with any Middle Eastern country. In the end, he tries to avoid important geopolitical problems and benefits from the dissatisfaction of the authorities with US policy in order to advance economic interests. However, given that the Middle East is an unstable region, the main question is how long it will be possible to adhere to this approach.

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