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Foreign Policy

Behind the Gulf Foreign Ministers’ Visits to China

Jan 28, 2022
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

The beginning of the year 2022 saw visits of some foreign ministers of Middle Eastern countries to China, most significantly those from Gulf Cooperation Council countries. The visits could be interpreted as an indication of China’s growing influence in the region, but could mean much more beyond that. As the U.S. intensifies its efforts to contain China, Gulf countries are not willing to take sides.

The U.S. in the last couple of years has put tremendous pressure on Middle Eastern countries to side with it in containing China’s growing influence in the region. GCC countries, regarded as U.S. allies as they have different kinds of defense cooperation with the U.S., were pressed to suspend their cooperation with China on 5G communication technology and infrastructure construction.

The United Arab Emirates was even asked to remove 5G facilities and infrastructure already built by Chinese companies. This was made a condition of U.S. willingness to complete its sale of F-35 fighter jets worth $23 billion to the UAE. Other GCC countries have received similar pressure in different degrees regarding the use of China’s 5G technology.

It is true that Gulf countries still regard the U.S. as a dominant power in the region, with its more than 40,000 troops and numerous military facilities in the region. But recent visits by GCC foreign ministers suggest that those countries are ready to defy unreasonable requests and coercion by the U.S. The reasons are numerous.

First, GCC countries view cooperation with China as the way to address current and future problems. Despite efforts to diversify their economic structures, GCC countries depend on the oil industry as an economic pillar. A major part of their financial budget comes from petroleum exports. China, because of its booming and growing economy, has become and will remain in the foreseeable future the largest importer of GCC oil and those countries’ largest trade partner as well. Trade relations with China have been an important contributor to the financial stability of the Gulf countries.

Last year saw the rampage of COVID-19. The years ahead will probably see no end to the pandemic, only its devastating effects. China has controlled the disease and managed its negative effects on the economy better than others. The GCC countries not only see China as a trustworthy partner in the joint fight against COVID-19 — as China is always be ready to lend a hand — but also sees it as a friend in dealing with the economic difficulties caused by the pandemic. China’s market for petroleum has served and will serve to be a factor for them to sustain their economic stability.

Further, GCC countries regard China as an indispensable partner in their efforts to diversify their economies. Though with prosperity driven by oil, Gulf countries have become increasingly aware of the need to diversify their economies. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have initiated a long-term vision for development with diversification at the core. China’s Belt and Road Initiative coincided with this vision, and will provide an opportunity for them to achieve their objectives. During the visits, the foreign ministers on both sides have discussed how to better cooperate with each other in this regard.

As wise Gulf leaders, they are well aware that without economic diversification and development, they cannot provide sustainable benefits to their people, which could bring political instability and insecurity.

Economically prosperous Gulf countries would even want to have technologies like 5G to keep their society and lives in advanced position. The UAE has seen the benefits of 5G employed at the Dubai Expo 2020. Saudi Arabia hopes to equip Neom city with 5G technology; Qatar expects to present the world with an excellent World Cup with 5G.

Second, the GCC countries value the respect they enjoy from the Chinese side. Being allies of the U.S. at different levels, they are often criticized by Americans as being authoritarian, and were not invited to the Summit for Democracy in December. Their religion has been frequently desecrated as in the cases of maltreatment of prisoners in Iraq and burnings of the Quran in Afghanistan.

China has long shown its tradition of respect for other countries with different civilizations. It opposes terrorism in any form but holds that no one should attribute the cause of terrorism to a particular religion. China does not see incidents involving the desecration of Islam. China also respects the political systems and development roads chosen by the people of other countries, not only among the GCC but also around the world. Most important, China has not launched a war in the Middle East. Nor does it put political conditions on its cooperation with GCC countries or others.

All in all, the visits by Gulf foreign ministers did signify some changes in international relations. GCC countries do want to maintain good relations with the U.S., but they also want to maintain good relations with other countries, such as China, and are not willing to take sides even under pressure. Their legitimate request to maintain economic and political stability and security should be respected.

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