After Saudi and UAE leaders Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emirati Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan were reported to have refused to take calls from the White House recently, Saudi Arabia announced that it had invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit. The incident came only a week after Gulf countries rejected an American request to increase oil production to compensate for Russian oil. The latest episode of the stark contrast between American-Arab strained relations and Arab-Chinese cooperation appears part of a more significant pivot in the Middle East toward China, who will be the winner in the post-American Middle East.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia is considering accepting yuan instead of dollars for oil sales to China.
Chinese officials have been discussing the option with Arab rulers for a few years, but the conversations took a serious turn recently after Arab concerns over Washington’s behavior in the region intensified. Saudi Arabia no longer conducting oil sales exclusively in dollars would signal a significant shift in the global energy market and the world economy. It would also likely convince other countries to start doing the same, creating the first real challenge to the dominance of the US dollar since the Second World War.
Ultimately, a shift from the US dollar will undermine the American ability to impose sanctions on other states and irreversibly weaken American foreign policy. Following the sanctions imposed on Russia by the US, one should not be surprised that more US foes will be pushing for further de-dollarization.
China is already most middle eastern countries’ largest trading partner. The Chinese Middle East policy doctrine of “influence without entanglement” enabled China to build a solid economic and diplomatic relations position without participating in the region’s security puzzle.
Thus far, 18 Arab states have joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The Middle East is the largest second recipient of Chinese foreign investments flowing into Iran, the Arab Gulf and other areas of the region. China is emerging as the region’s most important developmental actor and if its role keeps moving on its current trajectory, it will outweigh both the US and Europe.
But it would be inaccurate to explain the increasing Chinese influence in the Middle East only in terms of the rising developmental role. Indeed, the idea of accepting the yuan for oil has been floating in Saudi Arabia since at least 2016; however, it would not have received the serious turn it did recently if it weren’t for their clear mistrust of US foreign policy.
Unlike most solid US alliances, such as with Israel, the partnership with the Gulf was never built upon commitment to democracy or liberalism. No mutual commitment to a Western understanding of human rights brings Americans and Arabs together. Instead, the relationship is built on stability, transparency, and mutual interests. Those pillars are what guided the Gulf-US relationship through the epic storms of Arab-Israeli wars, the Cold War, Gulf wars, 9/11 and the rise of Gulf-funded global terrorism. Recently, these very pillars appear to be substantially eroding.
The first unraveling of Arab-American relations happened during the Arab Spring when Gulf rulers felt that the US had abandoned its strategic allies in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere. The failure to intervene in Baathist Syria against Asad despite the pleas of the Arab Allies, letting Iran, Russia, and Turkey fill the vacuum, was another major blow.
But the Obama administration’s insistence on reconfiguring the power balance in the Middle East so that Iran receives the amount of influence it felt it “derived,” amounted to disastrous foreign policy lunacy, which was consecrated in the JCPOA and was indeed the breaking point of Arab American relations.
The return of the Biden administration to the Obama playbook through the policies of undermining Gulf rulers, abandoning security commitments, and the appeasement of Iran is the last push the Arab Gulf needed to pivot towards China. It was already hard to envision any improvement of relations with an administration that came to office promising to make Saudi Arabia an international pariah.
However, the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan that signaled a wider US disengagement from the region, unwillingness to uphold security commitments and American desperation to court Iran seem to have solidified the end of an era and a need for an Arab pivot to China.
The ideological partnership between Arabs and Americans looks like a much nearer possibility when it comes to China. China’s ideological appeal lies in China’s lack of value system commitments. China’s ideology, which could be summarized by developmental peace, noninterference and good governance, seems to be more commensurate to the Arab state system, a system in which Human Rights do not have a place.
This ideology could help Arab states alleviate much of the socioeconomic tensions that resulted in the Arab Spring a decade ago without making any domestic political concessions. This ideological appeal is already at the heart of the Belt and Road Initiative. The new Arab autocracies want to be slim, economically resilient, developmentally successful, and more secure.
While it may be true that China does not offer the Arab Gulf security guarantees, China can still offer alternative security arrangements such as helping Saudi Arabia develop its ballistic missiles program. American troops remain heavily present in the Arab Gulf, but the increasing number of trips made by Arab officials to Beijing suggest that Gulf countries no longer feel they can depend on such troops. The Gulf’s current mantra of “diversifying the security portfolio” meant acquiring Chinese drones and Chinese missiles at a pace that seems to be getting only faster.
If China can maintain an acceptable balance of power in the Middle East between its two most important strategic partners, Iran and Saudi Arabia, China will become the new master of the Middle East. Ultimately, the US will be the biggest loser from such a profound transformation of the post-WW2 regional order and the beginning of a major erosion of American power and influence. The American foreign policy establishment and American politicians have no one to blame but themselves.
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