The United States, China, and Great Power Competition in the Middle East
Remarks to the David L. Boren School of International Studies, University of Oklahoma
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Visiting Scholar, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
By Video from Exeter, New Hampshire, 9 November 2022
It’s official. The Biden administration agrees with the Trump administration that almost everything that happens in world affairs can be explained by two interlocking zero-sum contests. One is geopolitical, as in ‘great power rivalry.’ The other is ideological, as in ‘democracy vs. authoritarianism.’
The so-called ‘Middle East’ is a subregion of West Asia that occupies the strategic space where Africa, Asia, and Europe collide. It has seen geopolitical contests for dominance between Hittites and Egyptians; Greeks and Persians; Romans, Greco-Romans, and Parthians; Arabs and Persians; Arabs, Turks, and Greco-Romans; Europeans, Turks, and Arabs; Britons and Frenchmen; Americans and Soviets.
It is also the birthplace of three of the world’s most disputatious religions, with much history of ideological warfare between them. It was where the decisive battles took place between Indo-European polytheism and Judaism’s Christian offshoot, and where Christendom sent crusaders to fight Judaism’s fiercely monotheistic offspring, Islam. More recently, Euro-Atlantic ideals of governance, including Marxism-Leninism, have struggled with each other there and sought with limited success to supplant indigenous Islamic and tribal traditions.
But to a remarkable degree, the situation in the contemporary Middle East refutes Washington’s current foreign policy dogma. Very little that now occurs in the region can be explained by either great power rivalry or ideological contests between democracy and. authoritarianism. The great powers, notably including the United States, have lost their grip on the place. And no one is trying to impose new systems of governance on it anymore.
It is striking that Washington has become, to one extent or another, estranged from all the key actors in the Middle East. With few exceptions, countries in the region now make their own decisions, without trying to sugarcoat them for American audiences. The United States has lost most of its influence in Turkey, it is at odds with Iran, and it now has strained relations with Saudi Arabia. Washington no longer has productive links to the Palestinian establishment. Its relations with Israel are increasingly complicated by diverging values, differing calculations of national interest with respect to dealings with Russia and China, and domestic American political polarization. Egypt is less deferential to U.S. views than it has been for four decades. The United Arab Emirates has emerged as a world-class practitioner of self-interested Realpolitik, ensuring that U.S. relations with it are nakedly transactional. And so it goes.
It isn’t just America that has lost its clout in the region. Britain and France – former European imperialist powers –– once called the shots in the ‘Middle East.’ Now they feel obliged to defer to their former satrapies so they can sell enough weapons and ammunition to keep their armaments industries’ production lines open. Attempts by them and other foreign vendors to use arms sales to pressure the countries of the region have simply pushed them to diversity their purchases and begin to develop their own military industries.
Having been rebuffed by the European Union (EU), Turkey has abandoned its two-century-long drive to redefine its identity as European. Ankara is pursuing an independent, if erratic, course in the former Ottoman space, with Russia and China, and in pursuit of pan-Islamism and pan-Turanianism. The deterioration in Turkish relations with the EU, NATO, and U.S. represents a very significant weakening of Western influence in many arenas, not just the Middle East. The West can no longer count on Turkey to support or acquiesce in its policies toward the Israel-Palestine issue, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Russia, the Caucasus, the Balkans, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Libya, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Afghanistan, the members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, NATO, or the Maghreb. This has huge implications globally as well as regionally.
Turkey is no longer aligned with the rest of NATO, Washington, London, Paris, or Berlin on longstanding Western diplomatic objectives in the region. Turkish policies complicate the tasks of safeguarding Israel; excluding Russian influence in both the Middle East and Black Sea regions; and opposing Iran. Far from joining in the US / NATO proxy war with Russia in Ukraine, Turkey has self-interestedly played a mediating role and exploited Russian distress to boost its economy.
Meanwhile, U.S. relations with Iran remain profoundly antagonistic. Washington echoes policy preferences from Jerusalem, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi rather than extrapolating policies from its own national interests. Israel and the Gulf Arabs encouraged and enabled U.S. strategic blunders in post-Cold War Iraq and Syria. These blunders facilitated Iran’s establishment of a sphere of influence and proxy forces in the Fertile Crescent that have left both Israel and the Gulf Arabs feeling encircled.
The short-lived ‘JCPOA’ addressed Israel’s near hysteria about Iran’s nuclear programs but not the more immediate concerns of the Gulf Arabs about its aspirations for regional hegemony. Israel’s fears of Iranian nuclear breakout and Gulf Arab anxieties about encirclement led both to press U.S. politicians to scrap the agreement, which they did. Iran has now predictably resumed its previously interrupted emulation of Israel’s semi-clandestine nuclear program. Israel has ironically helped put its nuclear monopoly in its environs in doubt.
The mixture of mindless malevolence, sanctimonious sanctioneering, and intermittent military confrontations and attacks that characterizes current U.S. Iran policy does nothing to curtail Iranian regional influence. The latest U.S. Nuclear Posture Review judges that Iran is not pursing a nuclear weapon, but Israel and the Biden administration continue to threaten military action to prevent it from acquiring one. This just puts pressure on Tehran to go nuclear. The outcome of similar U.S. policies applied to North Korea suggests that an approach based on “maximum pressure” is more likely to motivate Iran to build nuclear-armed ICBMs to hold the U.S. at bay than to deter it.
For now, America’s lack of a working relationship with Tehran leaves it unable to craft a regional balance of power or bring influence to bear on a major actor in the region by measures short of war. The United States has fallen into the bad habit of framing its interactions with other countries in terms of obsessions with ‘great power rivalry’ and ‘democracy vs. autocracy,’ rather than engaging with them about their expressed interests and concerns.
Meanwhile, American reactions to Iranian challenges in the Strait of Hormuz have consistently fallen short of Gulf Arab expectations. So, it is not surprising that, after fruitlessly pressuring Qatar to ignore geography by curtailing cooperation with Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have recognized their own need to deal with Iran, instituted a diplomatic dialogue with it, and begun a measured rapprochement with it.
In recent years, US-Saudi relations have suffered from mutual disillusionment and a sense by each country that the other has betrayed it. 9/11 entrenched Islamophobia in the United States and resentment in Saudi Arabia of American stereotyping of the Kingdom as a den of terrorists. Critics of the Saudi version of Islam piled on, drawing often fanciful connections between Saudi proselytizing and homegrown religious extremists. Saudi Arabia’s بدوقراطية [bedoukratiya] – a political system based on tribal norms of governance by a sheikh or amir committed to rule through consultation, consensus, and charity – was always offensively incomprehensible to democratic ideologues. Now it has been eclipsed by the even more clearly objectionable but reformist autocracy of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MbS.
Saudis have clung to scriptural norms even as MbS has implemented reforms long called for by the West, yielding astonishingly rapid social liberalization in the Kingdom. Meanwhile, however, American values have evolved to emphasize unbridled feminism, approval of gender complexity, and acceptance of sexual freedom as central concepts of ‘human rights.’ The U.S. insists that foreigners conform to these newly established U.S. norms. Like many other non-Western peoples, most Saudis regard recent American “woke” practices as immoral and the U.S. demand that they be respected as arrogantly presumptuous. Even as the Kingdom has become more ‘westernized,’ the differences between Saudi values and those in the United States persist.
The Biden administration’s American First policy version 2.0 has generated reciprocal selfishness abroad, including in Saudi Arabia. Political posturing and churlishly condescending public diplomacy by the United States have nailed the estrangement between Washington and Riyadh in place. It is bizarre to expect political favors from a foreign leader you have condemned as a moral reprobate and sought to ostracize.
In the past, the Kingdom would often agree to do things against its own short-term interests out of friendship with the United States. But in the absence of such friendship, it not surprisingly insists on placing its own interests first. The recent demand by President Biden that Saudi Arabia adjust its oil production levels to lower the price of gas at the pump and help Democratic Party candidates in the mid-term elections was both inept and delusional. The argument that the Kingdom should line up behind the United States in its rivalry with China and Russia has no appeal. Neither threatens any country in the Gulf. The Saudis, like most of the world beyond Europe and Japan, see the Russian invasion of Ukraine as illegitimate but provoked by NATO enlargement and inept U.S. diplomacy. They recall Israeli aggression in Lebanon and Syria and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, NATO’s intervention in Libya, and U.S. covert operations in Syria and discount American outrage at analogous Russian misbehavior.
The officially designated great power adversaries of the United States are offering to improve relations with the Kingdom. Issuing threats that facilitate this is tactically idiotic and strategically senseless. If President Biden makes good on his threats to punish MbS for declining to penalize the Saudi development budget by lowering the price of oil, the Kingdom has plenty of options for retaliation.
This brings me to China and its role in the Middle East. Ties with the countries of the region were long of minor concern to China. Similarly, relations with China were a low priority for the Arab Gulf countries and Iran. But over recent decades, that has changed. One-third of China’s energy imports are from the GCC, with the largest portion from Saudi Arabia. Chinese companies buy one-sixth of GCC oil exports, one-fifth of Iran’s, and half of Iraq’s. China has become the region’s largest trading partner and foreign investor.
The states of the region want more, not less Chinese engagement. As China takes a lead in global technological innovation, it has become a significant collaborator and customer for Israel’s high-tech companies and a partner in Saudi Arabia’s efforts to develop a domestic armaments industry. Seventeen Arab states have joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Iran’s preferences might have been otherwise, but U.S. sanctions have forced it to turn away from Europe, first to China, and more recently to its traditional geopolitical adversary, Russia.
Most countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, have been trying to dilute what they now believe has been excessive reliance on the United States. To this end, they have reached out to countries like China, India, and Russia. They are not seeking to abandon their ties with the United States or to replace them with ties to others. They are acting in their own interests, not taking sides to rebalance their international relations. They have not wanted to be forced to choose between China and the United States, and they do not react well to American insistence that they curb their relations with China, especially as the United States offers them no compensation or incentives to do so.
Like America a century ago, China has had no apparent imperial or ideological agenda in the Middle East. Unlike today’s United States, China does not ask countries in the region to change their political systems and values, punish them for failing to do so, or demand exclusive relationships with them. It does not make their stance on the behavior of third countries – like Russia in Ukraine – a litmus test for good relations with them. And it does not insult them or their leaders.
To this point, China has been very careful to focus its policies in West Asia on trade and investment and to keep its distance from the region’s political disputes. As a result, it has been able to maintain cordial ties with every ‘Middle Eastern’ country, including Iran, Iraq, and Israel as well the member states of the GCC, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinians, and Syria.
While the focus of American policy in the region is now the exclusion of Chinese influence, China has yet to profess opposition to continuing American involvement. Instead, Beijing has suggested the formation of a multilateral dialogue on security issues and, when the time is ripe, a regionally managed “collective security mechanism for the Gulf.” In short, rather than impose its own preferences or take sides, China has proposed to help bridge Iranian and Gulf Arab views. Meanwhile, China’s Gulf partners have found Beijing’s state capitalism, deep pockets, and rapid rise to modernity appealing. They see China and its BRI as a potential contributor to Vision 2030 and other economic development plans.
But the United States has just made the defeat of China’s aspirations for renewed wealth and power the main goal of its global national security strategy. Sino-American relations are in a state of “quasi-war.” And because of many unrelated factors, Saudi relations with the United States are more precarious than they have ever been. The question now is whether the sharpening hostility between the United States and China will lead Beijing to expand its objectives to include the reduction of Washington’s influence on the region’s governments.
Beijing has an ambassador in Riyadh. As is all too often the case in major capitals these days, Washington does not. China is not threatening Saudi Arabia, while the United States is. No dates have been announced, but it is widely reported that Xi Jinping is soon to visit Riyadh. There he will meet Mohammed bin Salman as well as other Arab leaders. Two powerful men, aggrieved by their demonization by American politicians and the threats their countries face from Washington, are about to discuss how they can bolster their cooperation. Together, these leaders and others who will meet with them can produce geopolitical realignments with major global impact.
China and Saudi Arabia have recently been discussing many issues. Some of these may come to fruition at the forthcoming summit. They include:
- Currency swaps and the use of the Chinese yuan and other non-dollar currencies to settle international trade in energy and other commodities.
- Saudi investment in Chinese refineries and oil storage facilities.
- Chinese arms sales and assistance in the development of an indigenous armaments industry in the Kingdom.
- Chinese infrastructure projects and other investment in Saudi Arabia and the region.
- Saudi membership in the BRICS and the SCO, both of which are engaged in creating new monetary systems and currencies designed to outflank U.S. abuse of dollar sovereignty to impose unilateral and therefore illegal sanctions.
- Educational exchanges that build on the Saudi decision to make the study of Chinese language and culture part of the basic school curriculum in the Kingdom.
- Tourism and pilgrimages to follow the post-pandemic era.
It would not be surprising to see China and Saudi Arabia conclude a strategic cooperation agreement with investment targets like those that Beijing agreed with Tehran in 2021.
There is a distinct possibility that, just as the United States reluctantly succeeded Britain as the dominant power in the Middle East in the 20th century, China will eventually end up eclipsing America there in the 21st. China’s interests echo those that first drew America into engagement with the Middle East:
- Beijing has a compelling interest in securing reliable access to the uniquely rich energy resources of the Persian Gulf.
- China sees the region as a crucial entrepôt and crossroads for trade and travel between Asia, Europe, and East Africa, making its stability a matter of great strategic interest.
- There is rapidly growing demand for Chinese companies’ engineering services, construction capabilities, automotive and telecommunications equipment, armaments, and consumer products.
- China’s citizens and entrepreneurs are establishing an ever-larger presence in the region. (There are now many hundreds of thousands of Chinese in the Gulf Arab countries and Iran.)
To this point, Beijing appears to have had no interest in supplanting the United States as the guarantor of regional stability and security. But its growing military relationship with the Gulf Arab states was a factor in the U.S. decision to kill the sale of F-35 multirole aircraft that the UAE had been promised to persuade it to normalize relations with Israel. And Washington has worked overtime to curtail Israeli technological cooperation with China, as well as to block Chinese infrastructure projects there and elsewhere in the region.
There is not a single country in the Middle East that sees the quasi-war the United States has initiated with China as in its interest. From their point of view, it is an obstacle to progress accompanied by annoying American peevishness about their cooperation with China that offers no substitute or alternative to such cooperation. The current U.S. approach is not a viable means of preserving U.S. influence in the Middle East. Among other things, it shows an unseemly anxiety that erodes faith in American wisdom and self-confidence.
The sad thing is that China and the United States share many common interests with each other and the countries of the region. It would be easy to draw up a list of proposals for cooperation to mutual advantage. But the U.S. Quasi-War with China will not allow the pursuit of mutually advantageous initiatives.
Until now, China has chosen to get on with its business despite American efforts to stop it. But this passive resistance may be about to end. Inept U.S. statecraft has created an opportunity for China to accelerate the demise of U.S. dominance in the Middle East. Will it now do so? We will soon know.
 The ‘Middle East’ is usually defined as the area between the natural barriers of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Caucasus mountains, the Iranian and Libyan deserts, and the Black, Caspian, Red, and Arabian Seas.