China’s new footprint in the post-American Middle East

Days after the UAE’s decision to cancel the agreement regarding purchase of F35 jets from the US, a CNN report (December 23, 2021) stated that assessments of senior US officials suggested that transfers of sensitive ballistic missiles had taken place between China and Saudi Arabia.

UAE’s reasons for cancelling the agreement for purchase of F35s

One of the reasons for the UAE to cancel the deal with the US was that it did not want to be caught in any sort of ‘cold war’ between both the US and China. Anwar Gargash, Diplomatic Adviser to the UAE’s leadership, said, while speaking at a think tank in Washington DC earlier this month:

I think we, as a small state, will be affected negatively by this, but will not have the ability in any way to affect this competition even positively really.

While the US has been uncomfortable with the UAE’s use of Chinese 5G technology, with Washington warning the Emirates that the latter’s use of technology will impact security ties between both countries, the findings of US surveillance that China was trying to build a military installation in Khalifa port, close to Abu Dhabi, led to serious differences. Although construction work on the site in Khalifa port was cancelled (though both the UAE and China insisted that the facility was purely commercial in nature), and both the Emirates and the Americans have publicly stated that their relationship is still strong, there is no doubt that recent events have cast a shadow on the bilateral relationship.

If one were to look at the case of Saudi Arabia developing ballistic missiles, it is important for a number of reasons. First, it shows the increasing security imprint of China on the Middle East, specifically two Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Both are considered to be close to the US, and the fact is that ties with China could emerge as a bone of contention in relations between Washington and Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

A senior Chinese official did not deny cooperation in the sphere of ballistic technology between Saudi Arabia and China, stating that both countries are comprehensive strategic partners. Said the official:

Such cooperation does not violate any international law and does not involve the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Interestingly, China also shares robust economic ties with Iran and has been pitching for revival of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal, while the UAE and Saudi Arabia, like the US, Israel, and other countries, have expressed worries with regard to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. China and Iran have also signed a 25-year cooperation agreement, referred to as “strategic cooperation pact,” in March 2021, which sought to bolster economic and security linkages between both countries. Iran has also hinted that if the JCPOA does not revive it would go ahead and trade with China and other countries.

Second, the development of ballistic missiles by Saudi Arabia will have a significant impact on the Middle East, and make it tougher for the US and other countries to prevent Iran from developing a ballistic program.

US ties with Saudi Arabia

While information pertaining to Chinese assistance for Saudi development of ballistic missiles was available to the US even earlier, the Trump administration did not put much pressure on the Saudis over this issue. The Biden Administration’s ties with Riyadh have been strained (as a result Saudi Arabia has been attempting to reorient its foreign policy significantly), though in recent months the US has been working on remolding ties. One of the reasons why Washington did not impose sanctions on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) even though declassified reports of CIA pointed to the fact that MBS was clearly involved in the Jamal Khashoggi murder (a number of Saudi officials were put on a no travel list, while financial sanctions were imposed on some officials), was that the US did not want to allow ties with Saudi Arabia to further deteriorate.

GCC countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have shared strong economic and strategic ties with the US, have been altering their foreign policy within the Middle East (one important example of this has been attempts by both countries to improve ties with Iran) as well as outside of it. One of the propelling factors for the reorientation in foreign policy of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is the belief that the US will be less involved in the region in the future. In the past the China factor has never been a major issue in US ties with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, but greater security and technological cooperation between the GCC states and Beijing could prove to be a thorny issue. Apart from its increasing economic clout, the biggest advantage that China possesses in the Middle East is that, apart from strong ties with Gulf countries, it also has good relations with Iran.