In April, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi embarked on a six-nation Middle Eastern tour to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman. ‘Belt and Road’ cooperation, economic development and the COVID pandemic were the topics of discussion. The treatment of China’s Muslim Uighur population in detention camps, which some in the West have described as genocidal, didn’t come up.
Both China and Saudi Arabia cleave to the belief that internal affairs are nobody else’s business — or at least as long as there are overriding economic interests at stake. Compare the silence of Muslim countries on the Uighur issue with the loud faux anger when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in 2005. Embassies were closed and Danish products boycotted. Between February and June 2006, Danish exports to the Middle East halved. Unlike when dealing with China, Muslim countries, in dealing with Denmark, had little to lose by playing to the religious anger on the streets.
At the 41st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in June 2019, 22 countries wrote a letter of protest regarding China’s treatment of the Uighurs. The ‘22 letter’ noted ‘credible reports of arbitrary detention in large-scale places of detention’. Surely the protesting countries included Muslim nations in support of their fellow believers? No. With the exception of Japan, all the signatories of the letter were majority white, Christian countries.
Not only did the Muslim nations fail to support the Uighurs but 21 Muslim countries co-signed a counter-letter which complained about the ‘22 letter’ for its politicization of human rights issues. The counter-letter, which won the support of 50 nations in total, astonishingly went on to praise China’s remarkable achievements in ‘protecting and promoting human rights through development’. Signatories included four of the big five Middle Eastern countries: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt. Unlikely bedfellows indeed.
The UNHRC ‘two letters’ episode reveals a lot about the current relationship between the Middle East and China. Sophie Richardson, director for China at Human Rights Watch, has claimed that China has managed to win these countries’ support ‘because they need Chinese investment’. This view is too simplistic. The truth is that China needs the Middle East as much as the Middle East needs China.
Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates do not require Chinese investment. Indeed, during Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Beijing in 2019, the Saudis concluded $28 billion of deals between the two countries including a $10 billion project to build a Saudi-financed refinery in the Chinese coastal city of Panjin.
For Bin Salman, Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road strategy fits neatly into his own ‘Vision 2030’, the key goal of which is reducing Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil and the diversification of the country’s economy towards service-sector development as well as infrastructure and tourism. What China can offer here is expertise.
For China, the importance of Saudi Arabia is obvious. Saudi oil accounts for 16.8 percent of China’s crude oil imports. Meanwhile, Iraq, Oman and Kuwait supply China with 9.9 percent, 6.9 percent and 4.5 percent respectively of their crude oil requirements. In 2019, Middle Eastern countries supplied 41.1 percent of China’s oil imports.
No wonder then that China has established its first overseas naval base at Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden. China naturally fears that its oil and trade routes could be disrupted by the US navy around the Straits of Singapore or by China’s emerging superpower rival India. To remove the fragility of its energy supply routes from the Middle East, China is also forging ahead with the development of Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea, where it plans to build an oil pipeline across Pakistan and the Himalayas to Xinjiang Province, where pipelines connect to the rest of China.
While China has developed close relations with the great Sunni powers of the Middle East, it has not forgotten its historic ally Iran. As China moved away from coal to oil, Iran became its first important supplier; in return Chinese military technology has been central to Iran’s development of modern weapons systems including missiles. The political closeness of the relationship was highlighted by their conduct of joint naval exercises in 2017.
If China has shown an ability to remain agnostic between Shiite and Sunni nations, it has displayed an even greater ‘moral neutrality’ in the Middle East by developing important technological partnerships with Israel. There is a strong mutual interest in this relationship. Israel knows that it can no longer rely solely on the goodwill of the United States. In dealing with a politically unreliable America, Middle Eastern nations hedge their bets.
In 2019 a Rand Corporation report noted that 11 out of 87 major Chinese investments in Israel were of concern to the US. And in May last year, secretary of state Mike Pompeo visited Israel and persuaded Netanyahu not to allow Israel’s largest desalination plant to be operated by China. However, this hasn’t prevented a flood of Chinese business into Israel.
Increasingly the West is losing the economic war in the Middle East. China has advanced its interests at the West’s expense by not taking sides — and by refusing to apply moral strictures to the Middle East’s actors.
The West is also left with the legacy problems of its military interventions. Over the past 20 years, at great cost and questionable success, military adventurism in the Middle East has undermined the West’s position. Across much of the Muslim world, it has lost influence and popularity. As a fragile peace develops in the Middle East, it is China that is benefiting while the West is left with the bill.