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Love in the time of Covid: China’s relationship with the Arab states

Published 13 Jun 2020
Marcus McCulloch

On the 13th of February – the day before Valentine’s Day – Riyadh promised Beijing a generous gift: 1000 protective suits, 1159 medical devices and 300 000 N95 masks. It wasn’t very romantic, but then again, it would seem like an impossible romance.

The Arab states are already betrothed to the United States, having received a hefty dowry. China flirts with the arch enemy of the Arab states, Iran, and treats their friends, such as the Sunni Uyghurs, poorly.

And yet, like a wildflower, the relationship has blossomed in these adverse conditions. China has established comprehensive strategic partnerships with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Algeria. The People’s Liberation Army Navy contributes to anti-piracy missions in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Saudi Arabia has begun teaching Mandarin as a third language in schools. In March, after getting its own Covid outbreak under control, China began to reciprocate the support it had received from the Arab states, sending them planeloads of experts and medical supplies.

Perhaps, the unromantic nature of the relationship is the key to its success. China pursues a pragmatic program of engagement with the Middle East and North Africa, oriented toward mutually beneficial trade and investment. Beijing avoids alliance politics, military commitments and economic sanctions. Insofar as China promotes values in its foreign policy, they are the values of state sovereignty and non-interference. China has no qualms about exporting surveillance technologies and unconventional weapons systems to other authoritarian states. China remained silent about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and in return, Saudi Arabia issued a statement of support for ‘deradicalisation efforts’ in Xinjiang.

This is in stark contrast to the Western approach to the region. For several decades, neoconservative US administrations have led military campaigns aimed at the promotion of democracy and capitalism in the Middle East. Liberal politicians have invoked the ‘responsibility to protect’ to justify selective intervention in Arab affairs. While China favours a cautious, incremental approach, European and American foreign policymakers like to pick sides, set agendas and solve problems. But their efforts are marred by perceptions of imperialism, and their willingness to compromise their stated values to work with autocratic regimes such as the House of Saud. When the West gets squeamish, for example over the Khashoggi assassination, cooperation becomes difficult.

Many critics have argued that China’s minimalist approach is unsustainable. China is often labelled as a free rider in the Middle East, claiming the benefits of American security commitments without contributing to them. China’s military budget is a fraction of that of the US, and it is largely dedicated to local rivalries. However, China’s reliance on the Arab world is increasing, while American security commitments show signs of faltering. China is now the world’s biggest importer of crude oil, and half of its supply comes from the Middle East. In the US, the shale oil boom has reduced reliance on Arab imports. Trump has strengthened ties with the Arab Gulf states, but his America First ideology signals a turn away from overseas commitments. This has been accelerated by the Covid crisis.

In the coming decade, China will need to step up to protect its economic interests in the region. Doing so will probably require sacrificing its neutral image. China’s reputation as a bully, commonly subscribed to in South and East Asia, could spread to the Arab world. Perhaps the honeymoon is drawing to an end.

Marcus McCulloch is undertaking Honours in Political Economy at the University of Sydney, writing a thesis on the industrialisation of the Soviet Union. He completed a Bachelor of Arts (Languages) in 2019, majoring in Political Economy, and Spanish and Latin American Studies. Marcus has been a recipient of several university scholarships and awards, including the 2017 Dean’s List of Academic Excellence, and spent a year on exchange in Madrid, studying world history from the Iberian perspective. He is also a keen debater, and recently reached the finals of the World Universities Debating Championship in Bangkok. He is interested in the fate of democracy in the 21st Century.

Marcus is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.