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Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo, President

As the Gulf turns East, China tests its waters

The renewed great power competition is ushering in a post-American era in Middle East and North Africa, of which the gradual disentanglement of Washington from the multiple local crises seems both cause and effect. Conversely, the rise in prominence of several powers (more specifically China and Russia, which have increased their geopolitical clout in this strategic area) reflects the multipolarity of the new world order and is forcing many local actors to look east. Effectively, the pivot to Asia seems not only to be the basic principle informing the new course of actions of the USA, but also the stance uniformly adopted by Gulf countries.
The visit of the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia to Wuxi on the 10th of January offers a perfect example of this tilt towards China, which has clear economic implications. For Beijing, the five-day visit was the occasion to strengthen ties with its main energy suppliers and resume talks on a free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), already launched in 2004 and reopened last year in a post-COVID-19 conjuncture that highlighted the converging interests of the main economic blocs into the Gulf.
Given its economic growth and strategic location, China is obviously poised to reap the benefits of this deepening cooperation with Gulf countries, which also helps consolidate its grip along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), especially in the MENA region, where last year Chinese investments rose by about 360% compared to the year before, according to a report released by the Fudan University.
Iraq took the lion’s share, receiving US$10,5 billion, but it is also interesting to note the all-encompassing approach adopted by decision-makers in Beijing, highlighted by the Memorandum of Understanding signed by Syria in January to join the BRI. Furthermore, considering that Beijing also hosted the foreign ministers of Iran and Turkey immediately after the visit of their Gulf counterparts, there is a sense of China’s multi-pronged approach to the region that would prove particularly convenient in the medium to long term, especially if the promises of the age of normalisation between former foes all around the region are finally met.
Sensing the approaching window of opportunity represented by the US disengagement, China may have also decided to switch gears, testing the waters for a more distinct military presence that will inevitably put traditional US-allies in the region in a very uncomfortable situation.
Talks in January between the Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and the Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman came after the US intelligence revealed the extend of the military cooperation between Beijing and Riyadh in manufacturing ballistic missiles at a military site in Dawadmi. However, the main victim of this unstainable pressure resulting from the China-US strategic competition in the Gulf seems to have been the UAE, whose absence in the recent visit to Wuxi along with its GCC counterparts was remarkable. Indeed, at the end of last year the UAE was not only forced to shut down a Chinese facility at the Khalifa port near Abu Dhabi after intelligence shared from Washington suggested it had military nature; but it also suspended negotiations on the sale of F-35 after the US insisted on replacing Huawei’s 5G, considered a national security threat by Washington.

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