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MENASource July 14, 2022

Biden’s Middle East trip focuses on the region. But China is the elephant in the room.

By Ahmed Aboudouh

US President Joe Biden’s visit to the Middle East on 13-16 July won’t directly focus on China. However, the rising power, which is fixed on expanding its influence in the region, will be the elephant in the room at the Saudi summit in Jeddah, which many Arab leaders plan to attend.

Biden’s agenda is crowded with a diverse set of objectives he wants to achieve in a bid to dismantle skepticism that has engulfed relations with the region for years. The trip will focus on the administration’s push to patch up US relations with Saudi Arabia, encourage it to pump more oil into the world market, bring it closer to Israel, and revive US standing in the region.

This path has been unrepentantly laid out in the president’s opinion piece published in the Washington Post on July 9, as part of his aim to “reorient—but not rupture—relations” with Riyadh.

‘Unreliable’ partner

Discussions with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members in addition to Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan (GCC+3) will cast an unpalatable shadow over the courteous approach the US is trying to promote ahead of the summit.

President Biden’s visit will allow the administration to recalibrate the popular, entrenched post-Afghanistan and Ukraine war narrative around the perceived US rebalancing away from the region to better compete with China. In the past three years, the US’s failure to address the growing perceptions regarding its future commitment to regional stability and security has granted Beijing favorable circumstances to portray the US as an unreliable partner in the eyes of regional powers.

The predominant anxiety among those countries originates from a prevalent sense of insecurity.

Now, China occupies almost every policy discussion in Washington—a trend that emerged from former President Donald Trump’s “America first” policy—creating a significant regional discourse gap. While it might be overblown, the gap between perceptions of the US’s part in engineering regional security and the reality of its engagement on the ground has taken root. In defending his decision to travel to the region, China and Russia were conspicuous motives in President Biden’s reasoning. He argued in his piece that Washington has to position itself favorably to “counter Russia’s aggression” and “out-compete China, and work for greater stability in a consequential region of the world.” 

The impact of the general panic gripping thought surrounding US commitments to the Middle East isn’t only confined to rhetoric, but also translates into policy actions manifested in buying more Chinese-made drones and air defense missile systems or turning what was thought, until recently, to be the pure fantasy of a Chinese military base in the Gulf into a real possibility. In 2021, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) stopped work on a Chinese security facility in Khalifa port to avoid antagonizing the US. Saudi Arabia is reportedly building its ballistic missiles with the help of China. This suggests Beijing is making wide strides in establishing its influence in bilateral security cooperation with the region, despite its transactional nature.

Understanding the sensitivity of laying the groundwork for expanding their cooperation with China on security, Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries heed Washington’s call to curb business in this terrain. However, they demonstrated their ability to put up greater resistance concerning China’s gradually building dominance in telecommunications and high-tech partnerships.

Imminent and postponed threats

Biden’s visit to the region will test the US’s dual approach to tackling China’s leverage. The administration’s China policy in the Middle East sees security and technological primacy as an imminent threat that should be dealt with immediately. Trade, infrastructure investment, and financing through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as China’s gradual diplomatic wear and tear, feature in the White House strategy as indelible, deep-rooted issues that will take long-term strategic planning to take on, as they involve a lot of hedging from its Middle Eastern partners. 

This is because pushing MENA countries on economic and diplomatic relations with China or trying to leverage them to adopt the US’s vision of China will usher the region into an era of intensified great-power politics—a curve regional leaders are desperately trying to avoid.

The proposed security pact between Israel and Arab partners on air defense, radars, and detectors is a good example. Although it’s still at an early stage and reportedly faces resistance, Iran as the threat component could turbocharge the idea during Biden’s visit. If materialized, the new alliance would close many loopholes in defense mechanisms vis-a-vis Iran, despite the fact that it may intensify regional tensions too. Nonetheless, it has a potential for greater security integration that would make it more difficult for external powers, primarily Russia and China, to muddle the regional security environment at times of conflict with the US.

A similar binary approach with China won’t work. Despite their different jockeying styles, most Middle Eastern players share almost the same vision for the region’s future. They see China as their new economic partner of choice, while the US remains their most important security ally. For them, the importance of multilateralism in trade and investments overtakes great power maneuvers. In other words, they don’t want to see their region turn into a pitch boundary for a cold-war-like rivalry between Beijing and Washington.

What should Washington do?

To be sure, the White House should read this visit as the first step on a long journey to rebuild trust with the region. Most importantly, to deal China’s increasing credibility a blow, it should try to convince its regional partners that the US has no intention of pivoting away from its responsibility toward the region’s security and stability.

The US should deploy prudent diplomatic statecraft to roll out its vision for a new regional security mechanism capable of dealing with the implications of the potential failure of negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This includes providing Gulf states with air defense and missile systems, in addition to any other advanced capabilities, they need to fend off attacks by Iran-backed militias.

Washington will likely see China written all over the wall in the summit room in Jeddah. However, its Middle Eastern partners don’t see things through the same lens and still believe Iran’s destabilizing influence is the region’s biggest dilemma. Many would argue that Biden’s close aides will identify an opportunity to trade off the two threats. This idea could prove valid. The administration would be right to conclude that addressing Middle Eastern concerns about Iran—now that the JCPOA still hasn’t been restored—could be the catalyst of support the US will perilously need in any future conflict with China.    

This should also include supporting efforts toward more regionalization in security and defense governance. To answer some Arab countries’ concerns regarding relying on Israeli technologies in the new proposed pact, the administration should take the lead by replacing Israel’s software base with its own more advanced and more-secured technology via the US Army Central Command (CENTCOM). This has two benefits. Many Arab governments and ordinary people will see no problem working in this direction with the US at the helm, not Israel. It could also help the US solve the dilemma of divergence among Arab countries’ perceptions of Iran as an imminent threat. Regardless of Iran’s malicious activities, Arab partners will see great benefits to their security interests in enhancing their militaries’ interoperability and other defense coordination with Washington.

Simultaneously, the US should scrap any plans for establishing a western-Asia version of the Quad focused on the sole purpose of competing with China if it wants its other initiatives to thrive.

The administration should also distinguish between the size and scope of the Arab states’ strategic partnerships with China. For example, relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE are much deeper and more important for China than its ties with other Gulf states such as Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman. Countries like Egypt and Iraq have become more economically and financially dependent on China; as a result, it has become inconceivable that they would be willing to reduce the intensity of their cooperation with Beijing without being offered feasible alternatives.  

The US should study extending the recently revived G7-led Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) as a vehicle of Western investment and an alternative to China’s BRI in the Middle East.

Confronting China’s influence in the Middle East is a long process that will consume time and resources. If Biden’s visit is to be seen as a first step in this direction, then Washington is certainly on the right track.

Ahmed Aboudouh is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter: @AAboudouh.

Further reading

Image: Prime Minister and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashed al-Maktoum meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates July 20, 2018. WAM/Handout via REUTERS