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What a more engaged China means for the Gulf

While Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Washington this week to repair a bilateral relationship that languished under Barack Obama, King Salman made the most important stop of his month-long Asia tour: Beijing.  The official visit quickly delivered results. Saudi Arabia and China signed memorandums of understanding, potentially worth over $65 billion, on the investment, energy, space and security-military fronts.

A week before King Salman’s arrival, in a somewhat unusual move by traditional Chinese standards of non-involvement in the Middle East’s intricate politics, China offered to mediate talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran. “China is friends with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. If there is a need China is willing to play our necessary role,” said Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Last year, Saudi-Iranian relations hit a new low after a mob ransacked and set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, following the execution of the firebrand Shiite cleric Nimr Al-Nimr. Saudi Arabia (and Bahrain) cut diplomatic ties with Iran, while all other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members bar Oman recalled their ambassadors. At the time, China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Ming visited the Saudi and Iranian capitals ahead of the historic visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt. Ming’s visit was interpreted as a call for restraint. 

In 2016, the Chinese government also hosted representatives of both the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition. Last December, representatives of Yemen’s Houthi militia visited Beijing for talks with the Chinese government on how to put an end to the war in Yemen. 

This Chinese diplomatic activity looks irrelevant in comparison to the level of regional involvement of the US and Russia. Yet it represents an indicator of China’s departure from its business-first approach toward the Gulf and the wider Middle East. 

A more engaged China 

The Arab Policy Paper of 2016, the first document outlining China’s strategy toward the Arab world, is a recognition that ensuring its key goals in the region requires it to be more engaged. The document’s introduction reiterates China’s “political will of commitment to peace and stability in the Middle East.”

Economic and trade interests will of course continue to play a central role. In 2004, Chinese oil imports from the Middle East and North Africa amounted to $40 billion. Ten years later it reached $110 billion. A few projections also show that China will soon become the main source of GCC imports. A China-GCC strategic dialogue mechanism has been established and a free-trade agreement with the bloc is widely expected.

Beijing might struggle to reconcile its vision of regional stability, cooperation and prosperity with the actions of Iran.

Dr. Manuel Almeida

The Gulf in particular is an important piece of China’s “One Belt, One Road” project. It has two main components. The New Silk Road Economic Belt, which aims to connect — in terms of trade, finance and infrastructure — China to Europe through land, and the Maritime Silk Road, with the goal of connecting China all the way to the Mediterranean via the Indian Ocean, the Gulf, Red Sea and Suez Canal. 

At present the China-Iran relationship is key for both sides. Iran is China’s top oil supplier and its biggest import and export market, while China is the leading investor in Iran. On a broader strategic level, Iran is essential for the “One Belt, One Road” project and is seen by China as a vehicle to counterbalance US influence in the Middle East. 

However, as the traditional separation between politics and business that characterized China’s Middle East approach continues to fade, Iran’s regional policy will likely prove to be an increasing challenge for Chinese diplomacy. 

The radical and revolutionary aspects of Iran’s regional policy, still dominated by hard-liners, are in direct opposition to China’s chief foreign policy principles, such as non-interference, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, and opposition to external interference and aggression. The one country where Iran vehemently claims to defend those principles is Syria, where Iranian military involvement and political intransigence have decisively contributed to the worst disaster the region has seen in decades.

A more engaged China might struggle to reconcile its vision of regional stability, cooperation and prosperity with the actions of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards or the list of Iranian allies in the region: Bashar Assad, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad in Palestine and Yemen’s Houthi  militias responsible for atrocities in Iraq and Syria.

With time, China may gradually come to see the GCC as an ally more in tune with its long-term vision for the region. 

• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a leading political analyst, providing research and consultancy services focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached on Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida.