Dr. Tahseen Mahmood Aslam describes a significant event
The Chinese strategic breakthrough in the inward-looking parameters of the Gulf region is directly proportional to the decrease in American influence in the region. Just a few years ago US President Trump had boasted that Saudi Arabian monarchy cannot sustain itself without American help even for a fortnight and in a deliberate attempt to upend such a hollow boast the Saudi leadership, in active collaboration of its Gulf allies, has opened the door for Chinese influence in the region in direct contravention to the American designs regarding containing China. Though many experts are at pains to point out that the Arab-China summitry is not aimed Arab countries choosing sides between China and the US but they are quite aware that this is precisely the underlying purpose of this development. It is very obvious that the Chinese are eager to emphasise that they want to play an appropriate role in the Middle East.
The intention of the Chinese to make inroads in the hitherto American zone of influence has been made explicitly clear by a 19,000-word report released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry titled “China-Arab Cooperation in a New Era” stressing that Beijing was a strategic partner and sincere friend that would play a constructive role in the Middle East and avoid doing anything in its own geopolitical self-interest. Though some observers might view this development as a not-so-subtle dig at US behaviour in the Middle East but there are concerns that the summit, which coincides with the visit by Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Saudi Arabia, comes at a particularly sensitive time for US-Saudi relations. Ties between Riyadh and Washington are currently considered to be at a low point and much has been made of the muted reception US President Joe Biden received when he visited in July.
In the process, Chinese President Xi Jinping held a summit after earlier signing a series of agreements with Saudi Arabia. President XI sat down with regional rulers on the third and final day of his trip, only his third journey outside China since the Coronavirus pandemic began. Leaders from the six-country, resource-rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) arrived at the conference venue and noted that the GCC has succeeded in overcoming global challenges. Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, whose country has largely restored ties to its Arab neighbours after a years-long boycott, was also at the summit. Prince Mohammed made a point in his opening remarks to applaud Qatar for its hosting of the World Cup. He also could be seen warmly greeting Sheikh Tamim before the meeting, something unthinkable only two years earlier. President Xi held one-on-one meetings with Tunisian President Kais Saied, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani and Sheikh Tamim of Qatar.
President Xi also committed China’s unwavering support for the Gulf countries’ security and assured that his country will continue to import oil in large quantities from the region. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman earlier addressed the gathering, noting that the summit reflected the common desire to strengthen Gulf-Chinese cooperation. The Gulf countries are bolstering ties with China as part of part of a strategy diversifying their fossil fuel-reliant economies. One area of cooperation is a China-GCC free trade agreement that has been under discussion for nearly two decades and in this context it was stated that GCC discussed the establishment of a Gulf-Chinese free trade zone. A breakthrough on the trade pact could help Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s biggest economy and diversify its economy in line with the Vision 2030 reform agenda championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Chinese leader Xi Jinping also vowed to import more oil and natural gas from energy-rich Gulf Arab states while not interfering in their affairs, likely seeking to cast Beijing in a more favourable light than Washington as America’s attention in the region wanes.
President Xi also urged the Arab countries to conduct energy sales in the Chinese yuan, potentially divorcing the US dollar from transactions in a region where the United States still stations thousands of troops across a network of local bases as a hedge against Iran. China’s hands-off approach could appeal to leaders such as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who stands ready to rule the oil-rich kingdom for possibly decades. President Xi’s visit comes as China relies on the Gulf Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, for billions of dollars in crude oil imports to power his country’s economy as it tries to slowly ease out of its strict anti-Coronavirus policy. Xi faced protests at home just before his arrival in Riyadh that represent the most-serious challenge to his rule after being awarded a third five-year term as the Communist party leader.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman stated that the kingdom believes that hydrocarbon energy sources will remain an important resource to meet the needs of the world for the coming decades. Higher oil prices could see the prince’s dreams of a $500 billion futuristic city of Neom on the Red Sea to overhaul the Saudi economy come true but rising costs at the pump months earlier further alienated the administration of President Joe Biden from Riyadh and it is something that the prince likely kept in mind during Xi’s visit. President Xi praised the GCC countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — for actively seeking political solutions to regional hotspots and invited their astronauts to China’s new Tiangong space station.
As part of his economic incentive, President Xi said that China plans to build a joint China-GCC Nuclear Security Demonstration Center that will train 300 personnel on nuclear safety and technology. Already, the UAE has the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant built with South Korea under a strict agreement that it will not enrich uranium — a possible pathway to a nuclear weapon. But perhaps most importantly for the Gulf states, President Xi stressed his country will keep being a major buyer of their oil in addition to expanding imports of liquefied natural gas, strengthening the engineering services in oil and gas upstream development and extending cooperation in storage, transportation and refining.
During the course of the summit, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came up and President Xi while parleying with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated that China remains committed to an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 boundaries of Israel. Xi also called for jointly opposing Islamophobia, carrying out cooperation in de-radicalization and opposing linking terrorism with specific ethnic groups and specific religions. President Xi also did not mention Iran, a rival repeatedly brought up by Prince Mohammed in his remarks. Iran is currently enriching uranium at its closest-ever levels to weapons-grade material even as it faces nationwide protests challenging its theocratic government. During Xi’s visit, Saudi officials said deals were signed between Riyadh and Beijing, including some involving the Chinese technology company Huawei on cloud-computing, data centers and other high-tech ventures. The US has already has warned its Gulf Arab allies about working with Huawei over spying concerns. It was also reported that China and Saudi Arabia have agreed to hold meetings between the two countries’ leaders every two years. TW