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China’s power in the Middle East is rising

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, left, with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, on July 20. (Malak Harb/AP)

Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a three-day visit to the United Arab Emirates, his second Middle East trip, after visiting Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt in January 2016. The most significant outcome was the elevation of the bilateral relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership, the highest level in China’s hierarchy of diplomatic relations. The visit indicates recognition in Beijing of the UAE’s role as a major actor in Middle Eastern affairs as well as the role it is expected to play in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

China’s emergence in the Middle East

Xi’s visit is especially important, coming on the heels of the 7th Ministerial Meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) in Beijing. Held every other year, this meeting outlines the direction of China’s Middle East policy. At this year’s meeting, China announced loan, aid and development funding packages totaling $23 billion, linking stability in the Middle East to Beijing’s ambitious BRI. In his opening remarks to the forum, Xi said Arab states are natural partners in BRI cooperation and called for “comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security.”

This commitment signals an increasingly activist Chinese approach to Middle Eastern affairs. More than 50 percent of Chinese oil imports come from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, but energy is only part of the story. The BRI is the pillar of Chinese foreign policy, enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party’s constitution this year and deeply associated with Xi’s administration. The BRI, a set of maritime and overland trade and infrastructure programs, is meant to link China with states across Eurasia and Africa. MENA is a geostrategically crucial hub linking several Eurasian regions and is therefore critical to the BRI’s success.

In its bid to contribute to MENA stability, China has emphasized development rather than political or hard-power solutions. The Chinese permanent representative to the CASCF, Ambassador Li Chengwen, made this point explicit, saying, “The root problems in the Middle East lie in development, and the only solution is also development.” China’s military footprint in the region is minimal, consisting of naval visits, peacekeeping operations, relatively minor arms sales and joint military training exercises. This, combined with its hands-off approach to the domestic politics of other states, makes the China model attractive to Arab leaders long accustomed to outside calls for political reform.

Partnerships, not alliances

Another feature of China’s MENA approach is its partnership diplomacy. Unlike the United States, China does not develop alliance relationships with other states, considering them overly costly and risky. Instead, it uses a somewhat vaguely defined set of strategic partnerships, with each level indicating the relative importance Beijing places on the relationship with that particular state.

The highest is the comprehensive strategic partnership, which involves multifaceted cooperation across bilateral, regional and international affairs and is reserved for states that China considers major diplomatic and economic partners. In his 2016 trip, Xi signed similar partnerships with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran, the Middle East’s most powerful states. That the UAE received this designation is confirmation that China sees the Emirates as an important MENA power.

The economic side of the relationship was already well established. Bilateral trade was valued at nearly $53 billion in 2017, making the UAE China’s second-largest Middle East trading partner after Saudi Arabia. Dubai’s Jebel Ali port provides a regional headquarters to more than 230 Chinese companies operating throughout the Middle East. The Chinese expatriate community in the UAE has grown to more than 200,000 from about 30,000 in 2006, with more than 4,000 Chinese businesses operating in the Emirates. This economic relationship, along with the UAE’s unparalleled regional infrastructure, makes it an attractive BRI hub for China.

Trade relations have provided a foundation for increased cooperation across other areas, reflected in the joint statement announcing the comprehensive strategic partnership, in which the two states pledged to cooperate across 10 fields, including politics and cultural affairs. Security and military cooperation featured significantly in the statement, emphasizing counterterrorism, maritime security and joint training of personnel.

Coordinating efforts in MENA stability

Interestingly, the statement includes Chinese support for “the constructive role being played by the UAE in regional affairs.” The Emirates, described by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis as “Little Sparta,” have taken an outsize role in Middle Eastern politics in recent years, a departure from a traditionally modest foreign policy. Speaking at Chatham House in London, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said, “In this current international system, it is no longer ‘write a check and someone is going to come and secure the stability in the region.’ You have to do some of the burden sharing.”

This muscular regional foreign policy is a UAE response to a Middle Eastern order teetering on the verge of collapse in the post-Arab Spring era. In its efforts to support the status quo, the UAE has diverged at times from the United States, reflecting a confident assertiveness and independent streak. Washington’s inconsistent approach to the Middle East over the past three administrations has reinforced the importance of self-reliance to Abu Dhabi, which has shown a willingness to pursue its own vision of regional security.

At the same time, relationships with powerful extra-regional partners is an imperative for a relatively small state in a dangerous neighborhood, and official visits in recent months included India’s prime minister and a trip to Moscow for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. Xi’s trip is another example of strategic hedging by the UAE.

From China’s perspective, the UAE’s role in shaping events offers an important opportunity to deepen ties with an emerging Middle Eastern power at a time when Beijing needs regional stability. Whatever economic or political leverage China creates through its partnership with the UAE has the potential to contribute to the success of the BRI.

The China-UAE relationship is a reflection of orders in transition, at both the regional level in the Middle East and the international level as China’s BRI gives Beijing greater clout in global affairs. Expect deeper cooperation as these ambitious states continue to adjust to changes in political orders.

Jonathan Fulton (@jonathandfulton) is assistant professor of political science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, UAE. He is the author of “China’s Relations With the Gulf Monarchies” and co-editor of “External Powers and the Gulf Monarchies,” both published by Routledge in August.