Nawaf M. Al-Thani
America, China, and the MENA
The Future of ‘Great Power’ Dominance in the MENA Region
For several years but especially post the war in Ukraine, the Middle East and North African countries of the Arab world, better known as the MENA region, have seen the sands of the global order shift ever so slightly in a way that has not been seen in decades, with China attempting to bring the MENA even closer into its sphere of influence.
The main driving force behind China’s plans to expand its influence in the MENA region seems to be a profound sense of vulnerability, with an increased dependency on energy from the region, which provides 40% of China’s hydrocarbon-based energy.
Furthermore, while I do not think China’s military will be the primary tool it chooses to secure its interest in the region, I would not disregard it entirely either. After all, while Chinese kinetic military activities may not be an immediate concern, non-kinetic military activities have occurred in the past, especially with prominent US allies in the Gulf region like the UAE, something that has had concerns over the transfer of American Military technology and the dangers of “trade espionage.”
In addition, with the recent announcement of China’s defense budget increase and party and government rhetoric about security concerns over Taiwan, China’s “Defense” influence may advance even further, partly because of the current global security climate and partly because of a growing dependency on energy from the MENA region.
However, the main tools that China uses today, and will continue to do so in the immediate future, remain heavily reliant on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and other sub-initiatives like the Health Silk Road (HSR), and other bilateral initiatives, which already have had varied results and effects in the MENA, something that took a big hit during COVID-19 and the ensuing economic global turmoil.
Ultimately, it seems that the goal of China is not to see conflict, as much as can be avoided, and not to directly replace the US as the principal partner in the region, but instead, to make the United States more and more, through time, irrelevant.
Some subscribe to the view that China may want the US to incur the cost of maintaining its presence. While at the same time, China reaps the economic benefits, or so it may hope. After all, China today views itself in the MENA region as the US did in the interwar years between WW1 and WW2 as a nation that must acclimate to its distance and a rival presence in the region.
To help it achieve its goals and combat the “Debt Trap” narrative, China may argue that a U.S.-led rules-based international order is a new form of imperialism, a version 2.0 that may resonate from a historical perspective with many in the Arab World. A replacement, however, would be a new form of mercantilism, a bilateral-based government-to-government relationship.
This would be economically attractive, at least on the front end. Hence the driving of the imperialism 2.0 narrative, another point that China may view as appealing to the MENA, would be to communicate to the region that the Chinese approach to economic prosperity will be free from what some in the MENA region may view as the unadaptable Western style of “liberal democracy”; crippling environmental requirements. And would even be free from a fear of a Chinese desire to export its values and culture, something that could be attractive to MENA nations that, by and large, are non-democratic.
This latest development by China to successfully bring the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran closer than they have been in many years should be of note to the United States. While pursuing the effects of what the US calls “Great Power Competition” in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, the competition for the world’s richest reagin is already in full swing.