Can the United States Effectively Counter Chinese Influence in the GCC?

Can the United States Effectively Counter Chinese Influence in the GCC?
Remarks to a Panel of the Middle East Institute

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Visiting Scholar, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
By Video Link to Washington, DC  14 December 2022

I’ve been asked to speak about how the United States might best respond to Chinese inroads in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.  We have a long history of relations with the GCC countries, much of it positive.  China has only recently renewed contacts with them.  Unfortunately, given our recent record in the Arab and Islamic worlds, this doesn’t work to our advantage.

In the name of “competition,” Washington has launched a global economic and technological war on China to forestall its continued rise.  Much of U.S. policy in the Middle East – especially the Persian Gulf region — is now about halting or reversing China’s increasing influence, in the belief that Chinese gains equate to American losses.  But this effort rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of the factors driving closer ties between China, the Arab states, Iran, and Israel.  We rely on appeals to long-depleted fossil friendship while offering nothing in exchange for what we demand.  We try to block the region’s trade and investment transactions with China with military carrots and sticks alone and offer no trade or investment alternatives.

The strengthening of Beijing’s ties with the GCC states has nothing to do with Chinese military power.  It is the result of China’s ability to address GCC economic and commercial interests.  Washington’s counter to this is that the Iranian enemy of the Arabs is also Israel’s and our enemy and that this makes us a friend and military ally, where China is not.  Building on this, we demand that the Gulf Arabs subscribe to our anti-Russian, anti-Chinese agenda while asking them to ignore Israel’s increasingly blatant racism and abuse of its captive Arab populations.  We calibrate our military sales – now our main source of influence – to enforce these demands.

This is residual imperial overreach masquerading as diplomacy.  It asks GCC members to prioritize our obsessions above their own interests.  It invites cynical cooperation by Arab autocrats but alienates the elites and masses they rule.  Our inability to enlist GCC – and, for that matter, Israeli – support for our hostility to Russia and China marks the near-disappearance of deference to American global strategy in the region.  Washington’s current policies are paternalistic and coercive rather than persuasive and provide no incentives for compliance with them.  This cannot work, especially when Beijing makes no political demands on the countries of the region other than that they respect its position on Taiwan.

In the context of US-China competition for influence, it’s useful to underscore a few basic facts.

Like Americans, Arabs like to buy things.  Evidently, Chinese like to make things.  China’s industrial economy is now twice the size of ours.  We import capital.  China exports it.  We cannot maintain our own infrastructure, still less compete with China in financing and installing new infrastructure abroad.  Where we were once a customer for the GCC’s energy exports, we now compete with its members for oil and gas markets.  But one-sixth of GCC oil and one-fourth of its petrochemical exports go to China.   The GCC is investing in ever more refineries in China, anticipating still further growth in trade.  In 2020, China replaced the EU as the GCC’s largest trading partner.  China just did a huge twenty-seven-year LNG deal with Qatar.

Before the pandemic, some 1.5 million Chinese visited the Arab region annually, while about 350,000 Arabs visited China.  There were more than 20,000 Arabs studying at Chinese universities, while more than 1,100 Chinese were enrolled in Arab universities.  More than sixty Chinese universities now teach Arabic.  Chinese diplomats and military attachés speak it fluently.  (Sadly, with few exceptions, ours don’t.)  Saudi Arabia’s decision to add Mandarin to its school curricula bears witness to an intensifying cultural relationship.

Until recently, China seemed contented to do its own thing rather than focus on competing with us.  But the policies of economic warfare on China now enshrined in the U.S. “National Security Strategy” seem to have convinced Beijing that it can no longer afford to ignore the zero-sum game we are playing with it.   Rather than simply enhancing China’s relationships with the GCC states, Iran, and Israel, we may now expect China to mirror and reciprocate our antagonism.

Al Zaytuna Centre in Beirut recently published a paper about Arab attitudes toward China and the United States based on polls by the University of Maryland, Zogby, Pew, and others.[1]  Though the chart does not distinguish the Gulf from other Arab regions, its author’s findings suggest that China is well-positioned to go on the offensive if it chooses to.

[Chart omitted]

We Americans see ourselves as the protectors of the GCC.  But in 2010 most Arabs – including 80 percent of those over the age of 36 – regarded the United States as their greatest threat.  This was after our brutal pacification campaign in Afghanistan and devastating assault on Iraq but before our disastrous efforts at regime change in Libya and Syria.  The best estimate is that, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been directly or indirectly responsible for the death of 4 million Muslims, most of them Arabs.  The Gulf Arabs may be unaware of the number, but they recognize the indifference to Arab lives that it signals.  They also know that the United States doesn’t just tolerate Israel’s cruelties to its captive Arab populations but subsidizes them and defends them in international fora.

So far, in Arab eyes, China is free of such delinquencies.  The U.S. tried to exploit Beijing’s mistreatment of Muslims in Xinjiang to reduce China’s appeal in the Islamic world but domestic American Islamophobia and Washington’s hypocritical silence about the even more egregious mistreatment of Muslims in Kashmir, Palestine, and elsewhere made this ineffectual.  Chinese Islamophobia is a muted reality that wins China no points with Arab elites but has not persuaded them that China is more prejudiced against Muslims than Europe, India, or North America.

The Middle East is the world’s most politically unstable geopolitical region.  The U.S. military presence in the Gulf is a vital link to GCC rulers but the source of considerable resentment by their subjects.  To now, China has been content to rely on the U.S. Navy to secure access to the region’s resources.  It has no military presence in the Gulf.  But given U.S. hostility, this position has become unsustainable.  The People’s Liberation Army Navy has begun to exercise with the region’s navies – both the GCC’s and Iran’s.

Military spending in the GCC ranges from 8 percent of GDP in Oman to 4 percent in Qatar.  Saudi Arabia spends 6 percent of GDP on defense; the UAE only slightly less.  The region is the world’s greatest arms market.  Saudi Arabia alone accounts for 11 percent of global arms imports.  Sales to it and other GCC countries are essential to achieving economies of scale and keeping armaments production lines open in the United States and Europe.  Recently, however, Western countries, including the United States, have threatened, or imposed arms embargoes on the Kingdom.  Concerns about the UAE’s growing relationship with China led to the cancelation of the F-35 sale that was the quid pro quo for Emirati normalization with Israel.

As an Arab friend reportedly told the Estimable Jon Alterman, the GCC has come to see the United States as “indispensable but unreliable.”  President Nixon’s threat to embargo sales of wheat to the Kingdom led it to become the world’s fourth largest producer of wheat. Now the threat of arms embargoes has led Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Gulf to begin to develop their own armaments industries.  For solid commercial reasons as well as a desire to reduce U.S. leverage against it, China is likely to play a leading role in this effort.

To conclude: To compete with China and other rising and resurgent powers for influence in the Arab Gulf, we must:

Restore our non-military manufacturing base,

Raise savings rates and return to exporting rather than importing capital,

Rediscover non-military instruments of statecraft and back them with something more than rhetoric,

Show respect for the interests of our partners in the GCC, and

Adopt more generous policies on technology transfer to avoid leaving the field to China and other competitors.

Sadly, judging by our current political circumstances, the prospects that we will get our act together in this way look poor to nonexistent.  China’s strengths are its own.  So are our current incapacities.

[1] Prof. Dr. Walid ‘Abd al-Hay: Academic Paper: The Future of Arab-Chinese Relations in 2030,