The warm welcome for China’s
leader Xi Jinping to Saudi Arabia in December was interpreted by many as a sign
of Chinese resurgence in the Middle East and a growing crisis in US-Saudi
relations.اضافة اعلان

China has become
increasingly active in the Middle East both economically and politically over the past
decade. Its
approach to the region ranges from actively expanding its reach and influence
to warily avoiding the region’s chronic instability.

At the same time, Western,
and especially US, perceptions have shifted from viewing China as a benign
“free-rider” on the security infrastructure provided by the US to a growing
consensus that China now constitutes a threat to Western interests in the
Middle East.

As tensions rise in the
South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, and political and economic fissures
widen between China and the West, Beijing is likely to become even more active
in a Middle East that has become more welcoming. Even as China’s footprint in
the region increases, it will continue to calculate each step with the likely
US response in mind. 

China’s engagement in the
region grew substantially following the announcement of its Belt and Road
Initiative (BRI) in 2013, in which the Middle East plays a significant part.
Originally focused on trade and investment in the energy sector, Beijing has
since diversified its activity. Today it plays an active role in numerous
infrastructure projects, smart cities, innovation centers, and
5G-mobile-network projects. Since 2016, China is the region’s largest
foreign investor.

Frustrated by US policies in
the Middle East, regional leaders, for their part, have started to view Beijing
as a more reliable partner as their distrust of Washington mounts. For Gulf
Cooperation Council (GCC) countries the relationship with China is more
strategic than opportunistic. China’s ability to provide both infrastructure
and technology fits well with the visions that Gulf leaders are pursuing for
their future.  

China’s Digital Silk Road, introduced in 2015, has
become a substantial part of its engagement in the region. Saudi Arabia, Egypt,
and the UAE have expanded technological cooperation with China in recent years.

With US-China competition
over technology intensifying, Chinese technology companies like Huawei are
facing significant pushback among countries in the West and are therefore
deepening their cooperation in the Middle East.

The shifting equation in the
region was clearly demonstrated when the UAE suspended
talks on
its F-35 fighter jet deal with the US in 2021, promised as a reward for signing
the Abraham Accords. The decision was made after a US demand that the UAE give
up cooperation with Huawei on its 5G network as a condition for the deal moving

Many countries in the region view China as an important partner that is there to stay. When countries in the Gulf envision their future, they see more China than the US.

The importance of the
Chinese president’s visit to Riyadh in December was in the fact that, unlike
previous ones, it was strategic
for both sides. 

For China, the biggest
question remains whether current US global strategy, including Washington’s
policy toward China, will lead to US resurgence or a gradual withdrawal from
the region. For Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the other GCC countries, China in
many ways fits well with their vision for the future. More than any other
player, China is fully equipped to serve as a long-term partner, buying their
oil, building their smart cities, and helping them diversify their economies to
green energy.

But rather than
choosing sides, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are inclined to favor a strategy of
multiple partners including the US, China, and others.

As the US works to preserve
its leadership role and Europe remains preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and
other challenges, China will continue to strengthen its position in the Middle
East, including its ties with longstanding US allies. Many countries in the
region view China as an important partner that is there to stay. When countries
in the Gulf envision their future, they see more China than the US. 

China will likely become
more active but is expected to remain cautious as it assesses the implications
for its regional and global interests of recent developments in the Middle
East. The US might well be changing its strategic approach in the Middle East,
but it will remain a dominant regional player in the coming years. New regional
groupings, such as the I2U2 comprising India,
Israel, the UAE, and the US, provide Washington with an opportunity to play a
positive role and reshape its regional position.

The US should work to
alleviate concerns among its partners in the Middle East that any pivot to Asia
will come at their expense by supporting such partnerships. Another idea could
be to expand the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework to include the UAE as well as
other Arab Gulf countries and Israel. 

By moving away from the
zero-sum game of superpower competition in the Middle East, the US can advance
a broader agenda that would be welcomed by its allies in the region and bring
Asia and the Middle East closer together.

Gedaliah Afterman is head of
the Asia policy program at the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy and Foreign
Affairs at Reichman University (IDC Herzliya), Israel.

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