Muhammad Sharreh Qazi
“China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will move the world.”
Ever since the discovery of oil in substantial quantities, Gulf states became an epicenter for attracting superpowers. Normally, their paths came across some dangerous junctions; communism or capitalism, pan-Islamism or modernism and a very recent, China or America. Beyond its economic expertise, Gulf states still largely remain untrained in the art of warfare. Amassing billions of dollars’ worth of equipment and still being unable to utilize it to its full potential, Gulf states quickly found themselves ‘oily enough to be swallowed conveniently’. For major regional stakeholders like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, chances of extrication are slim; regional cooperation seems a futile venture and realignment is not possible.
The question that one should ask then is this: Why Gulf states had resisted Chinese charm and found themselves compliant to American desires? One answer is that China’s ‘reluctant superpower’ posture kept their strategies speculative. Middle East is a place full of binary geopolitics without complications. For Middle Eastern countries, there is either friend or foe, partner or rival, collaborator or contender. Their strategic vision is built around a strong economy reliant deeply on Western enterprises with very little indigenous input. With China, Gulf states fear a sudden shift in longstanding strategies for which they have never prepared. Just as French royalty was aware but indifferent to the French Revolution, leadership in the Gulf is unprepared to accept a disinterested America. That said, the allure of the Dragon is slowly but surely making a discernible impact on Gulf states’ ties with Beijing.
A zero-sum mentality has, however, permeated the Middle East. United Arab Emirates has often justified its pivot to Israel on grounds of enhancing its military footprint via renewed defense commitments. Bahrain aims to follow a similar suit while Saudi Arabia continues to commit to an American security matrix for securing its national interest. This framework works like clockwork when the target adversary intimidates militarily, something China does not intend to offer. The differences in how Beijing and Washington look at the Middle East, is glaring, to say the least. For China , Gulf is an unexplored avenue with a sizeable potential for collaboration. Chinese intentions to invest in Iran are not based on cornering Gulf states in proximity to Tehran, rather it intends to offer extensions to any investor willing to keep pace with its economic progress. To America, such strategies are detrimental, as they take away its soft power edge and allow it to maintain only a hard power posture. This puts America in a precarious position where it would have to ‘encourage’ global conflicts for sustenance of its superpower position.
A practical demonstration of this was how America facilitated a military enhancement of contending parties during meltdowns in Yemen and Syria. To Gulf and the Middle East, a superpower benefactor that favors brinkmanship is not sustainable to its economic visage. Even as Middle East securitizes relations with longstanding rivals, streamlines internal conflicts and consolidates itself as a regional bloc, it still continues to build unfounded apprehensions that increase its anxieties. All that will become more convoluted, given how China is being seen as a lucrative partner. For example, Riyadh has also made concerted efforts to woo Beijing to join it in its ambitious Vision 2030. It must be noted that, over the past three years, both countries have signed proposals and agreements worth USD 93 billion.
Middle Eastern oil politics is an era whose shelf-life is fast elapsing. Central Asian, American and Russian oil provides sufficient compensation even if Middle East falters. Besides oil, economic activity is mostly infrastructural which needs investors and markets; something Beijing is happy to supply to anyone who wishes to participate. Even if the Gulf pivots towards China economically, American interests remain unchanged. China has not yet offered any of its partners any substantial security services as it is not Beijing’s area of expertise. That could, however, change. The Yemen gambit by the Trump administration only reassures Middle East’s concerns that unabated conflicts overwhelm economic progress. For prospective ‘clients’ to Trump’s Abraham Accords, seeking refuge via Tel Aviv would be short-lived. With lackluster indigenous warfighting capabilities and dwindling economic buoyancy, the Gulf states would soon find themselves sprinting towards a meltdown. China’s resistance to military involvement would never imply that it lacks capacity. For Middle East, concerns would also not emanate from a military dimension, rather they would take roots from an economic dimension. Once there is an economic partnership between China and Iran, policies in the Gulf might experience a phase of hostility and aggression but its economic toll would be multitudinous. What China currently offers is an opportunity where China itself is not in a bargaining position. This allows Saudi Arabia and other regional stakeholders to negotiate a fair deal based on their internal economic assessment. Regional consolidation can deter any interventionism, which is a prime reservation.
China has not yet ventured in the Gulf and Middle East, and many might argue that, it has not yet made any financial offers worth considering. This inertia by Chinese enterprises is not because they fear American presence but because they know that Middle East’s ‘renaissance phases’ have always made them invariably dependent on their benefactors. For Beijing, Biden and Trump would not take different approaches in the Gulf, as economic interests are always binary. The opportunity, however, would present itself when Gulf and Middle Eastern states would invest so much based on premonitions that their decision making would automatically set itself to torpor, as it occurred during Desert Storm. Bastille fell because indifference led to inertia, and Gulf states often capsize when apprehensions dominate strategic dispositions. Choosing to remain in black and white has served Gulf interests only when America and its allies were economically dominant. Now that China has surpassed Western economic prowess, a change of pace towards Beijing is crucial. This does not mean sacrificing commitments they have with America, rather only to diversify their strategic interactions within the international arena. Trump’s isolationism is a window of opportunity for the Middle East to revisit its rapprochement with China. Such a move will not only consolidate their economic sustainability, but also ensures more regional connectivity.
“The Middle East is a land of abundance. Yet we are pained to see it still plagued by war and conflict. Where should the Middle East be headed? This is the question the international community keeps asking. The people here want less conflict and suffering, more peace and dignity.”
Xi Jinping, Chinese President, Speech at the Arab League Headquarters in Cairo January 21, 2016.
The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not represent those of the organization he works for.
Muhammad Sharreh Qazi is Lecturer in the School of Integrated Social Sciences, University of Lahore, PhD. Scholar for International Relations at University of the Punjab and author of the book titled ‘Escalation Patterns in South Asia: Future of Credible Minimum Deterrence’