Tom Grein | Middle East and North Africa Fellow
If you visit the Israel-Syria border today you may stumble across a Brutalist style building or two. These ghostly bullet-riddled concrete slabs are relics of a bygone era—an era when Moscow and Washington vied for ascendency in the Middle East. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States was left as the sole great power in the region. But a quiet geopolitical shift has occurred of late, as a different force from the East now challenges American authority.
In 2015 China became the world’s largest importer of crude oil, with approximately half of its supply emanating from the Middle East. The Belt and Road Initiative, declared to be “the most significant and far-reaching initiative that China has ever put forward”, places Beijing at the heart of Eurasia, connecting markets from the East China Sea to the Mediterranean. Upon its completion, China will have economic ties to countries that comprise over approximately half the world’s population and one-quarter of global GDP.
Beijing’s ambitions in the Middle East and North Africa are outlined in two key government documents—the Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt (2015) and the Arab Policy Paper (2016)—with investment, infrastructure and energy paramount. China has established comprehensive strategic partnerships with the region’s main players including Egypt, Iran, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, while the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council have shifted their foreign policies in recent decades to meet emerging markets to the east.
Strategically speaking, Chinese presence in the region offers a land-bridge to its Maritime Silk Road which runs up the east African coast into Europe. Influence around the Straits of Hormuz and Suez Canal—two of the world’s major economic waterways—is critical, as it augments China’s pull and diminishes Western dominance.
The nature and extent of China’s intentions in the region are still relatively unclear, but like other domains, Beijing’s movements are largely dependent on, and often shaped by, American activity.
The Obama Administration’s tilt toward Tehran gave Saudi Arabia—and by extension the Arab world—reason to doubt the U.S.-Saudi partnership. This prompted Arab states to diversify their extra-regional relationships, allowing China to slip its way into the picture. Moreover, isolationist rhetoric is the flavour of the month in American foreign policy debate on both sides of the political aisle, and has destabilised confidence in historic regional partnerships.
The moral efficacy of Western alliances with Middle Eastern states has become a talking point of late, too. Senior members of American and British parliaments have labelled their governments complicit in the deaths of Yemeni civilians due to their sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders declared his intention to halt weapons sales if elected in 2020, while UK Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn stated likewise in 2019. A British court even ruled UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia unlawful.
At the root of this lies the question of whether Western states should cooperate with governments they may consider morally repugnant. There are strong arguments against maintaining Saudi Arabia as a close ally—not least of which include opposition to the Kingdom’s bloody war in Yemen, the assassination of a journalist on foreign soil and internal persecution of political dissidents. But China’s regional ambitions may give cause to curb moral indignation.
The problem is, an economic and political vacuum created by a Western withdrawal from the Middle East is likely to be filled by China. Deeper entry into the region would generate competition between Washington and Beijing and, like Iran’s galvanisation and subsequent surreptitious activity, potentially pave the way for further proxy conflict in an already fractured region.
The Trump Administration has, intentionally or not, taken significant steps to minimise this outcome. Trump’s first international trip as President was to Saudi Arabia, where he signed a ten-year $350 billion arms deal, while in 2019 he vetoed several bills attempting to block weapons sales. He has consolidated ties with Cairo, and united Arabs and Israelis against Iran. His goal has been clear from the outset—revitalise Arab confidence in America.
But will this be enough to effectively check China’s advance in the region? It’s unlikely.
With this emergent Sino-American frontier in mind, Western policy-makers must weigh the lasting strategic and economic effects of divesting from the region against fleeting populist-isolationist appeals and moral objections in the here and now. The fact is autocratic regimes play by different rules—they are largely free of moral condemnation from their constituents and outside observers—which gives them an advantage in maintaining regional partnerships.
While moral objections are profound, China’s rapid inroads and long-term ambitions impel policy-makers to place Beijing front-and-centre when debating retraction from the Middle East. To do otherwise is to not only undercut Western interests, but also invite an incessant regime into a region that could do without another incessant regime.
Tom Grein is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.