Saudi Arabia made plenty of front page news in 2018, from the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul to the bloody ongoing war in Yemen. These developments have strained its ties with the United States at least with Congress and with some European countries, who have since cut arms sales to the Kingdom. But the Chinese government has yet to utter any negative words about Saudi Arabia. And beyond the headlines, cooperation between the Middle Kingdom and the Oil Kingdom has been quietly taking off.
China’s gluttonous need for fuel makes the Gulf indispensable. Chinese oil imports are expected to reach 80 percent of total consumption by 2030, and more than 35 percent is already imported from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries—all while the United States is reducing its imports and becoming self-reliant through fracking. The trading relationship goes beyond oil, too: In 2016, China became the Saudis’ largest trading partner, with $45 billion in annual trade. This is a consequential relationship, and one worth exploring.
Jonathan Fulton’s new book China’s Relations with the Gulf Monarchies does just that by diving into China’s historical and present relations with the nations of the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia. It is an academic book, so readers get their necessary chapter-length dose of International Relations (IR) theory and discussions of whether Neoclassical realism offers the right framework for China in the Gulf. Luckily, the IR conclusion remains as simple as it should be: China’s approach is fundamentally interest-based and focused on power politics.
The book’s main argument is that China-Gulf relations are no longer just about oil. For one, Beijing has added the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to the equation. The countries are also on the cusp of broader security cooperation. For the Gulf states, China represents a welcome opportunity to diversify its diplomacy and gain a less complicated partner on questions of internal governance and human rights. China offers a strict non-interference policy on such matters, which amounts to no pesky questions asked. The Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, reciprocate with bland (if any) comments on China’s tough policies toward Muslims in Xinjiang.
One of the book’s telling quotes is from Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Ambassador to the United States. “China is not necessarily a better friend than the U.S.,” he says, “but it is a less complicated friend.” As the U.S. government withdraws from the Middle East and its partnership with Saudi Arabia comes under attack from Congress, it could easily be China filling the void.
China’s growing role as a global power necessitates a better understanding of its bilateral relations with countries around the globe. There are few detailed current studies of China-Gulf relations, so this book fills a needed gap. It provides a historical overview starting from the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. It also insight-fully covers the somewhat forgotten period of hostility from 1965 to 1971, when the PRC was at the height of revolutionary fervour and supplied the Dhofari rebels in Oman with military support. That decision stunted relations with all the Gulf countries, and provided the backdrop for Saudi Arabia voting against admitting PRC to the United Nations in 1971. The two countries only established full diplomatic relations in 1990. The period from 1990 to 2012 is labelled interdependence and is characterised by the growth in China’s oil imports. Tellingly, Chinese leader Jiang Zemin went to Saudi Arabia in 1999, in the first such visit by a Chinese head of state, to sign a Strategic Oil Cooperation Agreement. No need to search for a diplomatic deeper meaning there.
The period from 2013 onwards is fittingly called the Belt and Road era. The Gulf has become an important hub for China in its global expansion of the BRI, Xi Jinping’s project to ensure all roads and waterways lead to Beijing. In accordance with the BRI plan, Chinese companies have ramped up their construction and infrastructure engagement in the Gulf. In Saudi Arabia, China built a railway connecting the holy shrines in Mecca, the very heart of Islam. But its construction projects go far beyond that, extending to the Middle East’s largest power plant north of Jeddah and the Yanbu refinery.
China’s BRI strategy fits with the Gulf countries’ emphasis on moving beyond oil. It compliments both the Saudis’ Vision 2030 plan and the Emiratis’ short-term boom in construction ahead of the Expo 2020 in Dubai. One project planned would expand the Jebel Ali Free Zone in Dubai, which links with Tianjin and is the busiest trade route between the Gulf and East Asia. Likewise, in Oman, the establishment of a multipurpose port in the Duqm Special Economic Zone Authority has been highlighted as a flagship BRI project. The Gulf countries aren’t squeamish about the BRI, unlike the United States. UAE Foreign Minister Al Jaber has said that BRI is “a bridge to our common future” and has voiced strong support for the initiative.
The UAE has the largest concentration of Chinese nationals in the Gulf, around 200,000. Tourism from China is also picking up, and Dubai caters to Chinese tastes with its “China-Ready” program, which makes Chinese television and newspapers available locally, not to mention two Confucius Institutes. The Chinese influx, of course, also brings Chinese state-run propaganda into countries which, like China itself, lack a strong civil society and free press.
Inevitably, the importation of a large Chinese workforce and the implementation of huge construction projects gives the Chinese state a strong stake in the stability of these countries. This is one way that China’s security interests in the Gulf are increasing. The Chinese navy (PLAN) is also increasing its presence with port calls in the United Arab Emirates and in Oman, complementing its larger presence in the Indian Ocean and basing agreement in Djibouti. Add to that Chinese arms sales, from ballistic missiles to howitzers, and the extent of deepening military ties becomes all the clearer. When Saudi Crown Prince Mohamad bin Salman (MBS) went to China in 2016, Minister of Defence Chang Wanquan described China’s willingness “to push military relations with Saudi Arabia to a new level.” And in China, needless to say, there are no NGOs or an independent Congress trying to put the brakes on such sales.
Fulton’s book is a good primer on China’s relations with the Gulf countries, though it might have dug deeper on some of the current pressure points. In particular, a chapter on how China balances its relationships with Saudi Arabia and Iran would be useful. China imports large quantities of oil from Iran, too, which is complicated by renewed U.S. sanctions and by Riyadh and Tehran’s zero-sum approach to the regional power game. This stands in marked contrast to China’s trade-with-all and nominally “win-win” approach.
If Trump’s Syria withdrawal becomes emblematic of a larger U.S. policy shift in the Middle East, there is no doubt that China will seize its opportunity. As one Gulf official presciently states in the book, “we need a dependable relationship with a major power. If the United States can’t be counted on, then we will have to turn elsewhere.”