Amid US rivalry, is China’s gamble in the Middle East paying off?

The Belt and Road Initiative, launched in 2013, significantly increased China’s regional involvement, making Beijing the primary foreign investor in the Middle East since 2016. Initially focused on the energy sector, China has expanded its engagement to include infrastructure projects, smart city initiatives, innovation hubs and 5G mobile networks, not only in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) but also into Qatar, Iran and Israel.

For Gulf Cooperation Council countries in particular, the relationship with China is now of strategic importance. This can be seen in China’s trade with the six-member bloc, which surged from US$10 billion in 2000 to US$230 billion in 2021. China’s ability to provide infrastructure, technology and trade without political or human rights demands is particularly attractive.


Saudi tech minister says China a ‘success story to replicate’ during Hong Kong visit

Saudi tech minister says China a ‘success story to replicate’ during Hong Kong visit

Furthermore, in recent years, China’s increasing technological prowess has been evident across the region, especially in the Gulf. The UAE and Saudi Arabia, in particular, align with China’s technological advancements through its “digital silk road”, and aspire to become global leaders in technology and innovation.

China has also developed a partnership with Israel, another key US ally. Bilateral trade reached a record US$21 billion in 2022 and Chinese companies have been engaged in around 500 investment deals with Israel over the past decade, predominantly in the technology sector.

Outside the economic domain, the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Beijing in March last year seemed to have marked a significant milestone in China’s expanding position in the region. This development, along with the Gaza war, reignited discussions about China’s growing political influence and role in the Middle East.
Despite China’s efforts to position itself as a regional mediator, its initial response to the Hamas attack was muted. Beijing, which only months earlier proposed itself as a mediator in the conflict, refrained from directly condemning Hamas for the atrocities committed, leading to disappointment and anger in Israel.


Xi Jinping calls for Gaza ceasefire, says two-state solution only option for lasting regional peace

Xi Jinping calls for Gaza ceasefire, says two-state solution only option for lasting regional peace

As the conflict has progressed, Beijing has adopted an increasingly one-sided approach, critical of Israel and the US.

For China, the conflict is less about the Palestinians or the Israelis and more about its standing in the region, interests vis-à-vis Arab countries and Iran, and its position regarding the US. China aims to discredit the US in the Middle East and the developing world while securing Arab and Muslim support for its policies in Xinjiang.
China’s strategy throughout the Gaza war has been one of aligning with the interests of the Arab world while differentiating itself from and discrediting the US. It has increased its diplomatic activity to align with regional players such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Global South and Brics countries.
Indeed, establishing itself as the leader of the Global South among the five veto powers on the UN Security Council is another goal of its positioning. This was on display recently when senior Arab officials visited Beijing for the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum.

For Israel, this dynamic creates a new challenge as it will need to manage a more complicated relationship with a less friendly China not only in Tel Aviv but increasingly also in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

Eight months after the Gaza war started, China’s clear and calculated shift towards a more assertive pro-Palestinian, anti-American and anti-Israeli stance reflects its evolving priorities and strategic interests in the Middle East, in which Israel has become less important. Those in Beijing are likely to be pleased with the outcome of China’s approach so far.

But the future is less certain. While China’s strategic manoeuvres in the Middle East since the outbreak of the Gaza war have garnered public support and challenged America’s influence in the region, the long-term impact remains uncertain. The region’s complex dynamics and the US’ political and military power suggest that while China’s economic power will grow, its political influence may remain limited.

That said, given its growing presence, China’s economic influence may be sufficient to achieve its strategic goals at the expense of the US, and at minimal cost. As the geopolitical landscape evolves and the Middle East becomes more important globally, the interplay between Chinese ambitions and American responses will continue to shape the region and beyond.

Gedaliah Afterman is head of the Asia Policy Programme at the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy & Foreign Relations, Reichman University, Israel


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