China, the US and a new scramble for the Gulf

Washington won’t want to share its sphere of influence. But new Gulf leaders and Xi Jinping have other ideas.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with Saudi King Salman during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Thursday, March 16, 2017. (Lintao Zhang/Pool Photo via AP)
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with Saudi King Salman in Beijing, China, on Thursday, March 16, 2017. Xi is visiting Saudi Arabia for several days from December 7, 2022 [Lintao Zhang/Pool Photo via AP]

China is Saudi Arabia’s biggest trading partner, and the kingdom is China’s largest supplier of oil, so it’s normal for their leaders to meet and talk.

But these are not normal times.

Before President Xi Jinping has even set foot on Saudi soil, there’s already talk of “stepping on Washington’s toes” and of interfering in a “US sphere of influence”.

Indeed, during his visit to Riyadh only five months ago, United States President Joe Biden told a summit of Arab leaders that the US “will not walk away” from the Middle East to leave “a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran”. Biden has also tried to assure allies that the humiliating US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year will actually free more resources for its long stay in the Gulf and wider region.

But that has not deterred Xi or his hosts from organising, in addition to a bilateral summit, separate summits with Arab states and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) during the Chinese president’s visit to Riyadh from December 7-9. To rub salt into the wound, they might even go the extra mile in making the summits appear more prestigious than those organised for Biden.

Why? Well, because US-Saudi relations, much like US-China ties, have been strained despite American attempts to maintain appearances of constructive engagement.

Both Riyadh and Beijing have grown tired of Washington pressuring them to take its side against Russia in Ukraine and preaching the rights and wrongs of their ways in the Western-imposed “rules-based international system”. All of this seems to have brought them closer together.

A younger generation of Gulf leaders is showing more agency as they seek greater independence from Washington to diversify their partnerships in energy, technology and security. China’s a natural partner for them: it seeks reliable energy sources and markets for its goods and services, and prioritises development and trade over democracy and human rights.

Some if not most of these Gulf leaders oppose Biden’s attempts at reviving the Iran nuclear deal and his politicisation of human rights issues. Earlier this year, the GCC even expressed support for China’s controversial policies towards its Muslim Uighurs, which have been condemned by the United States and others.

In 2021, the Biden administration snubbed Saudi Arabia because of its poor human rights record and because it could afford to, with an excess of oil and gas in the global markets. Western nations were also bullish about the transition away from fossil fuels to green energy.

But the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year has changed all of that. The US and its European allies have suddenly found themselves facing either oil and gas shortages or higher prices that have hurt their economic recovery after the pandemic. Alas, moving away from fossil fuels will prove challenging and drawn out.

Biden’s attempt to appease the Saudis in the hope of lowering oil prices ahead of the US midterm elections failed miserably, as the de facto Saudi-led OPEC refused to increase oil production.

Other Western leaders have also tried their hand, with the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz descending on the Gulf region in the hope of finding a substitute for Russian oil and gas. But China had beat them to it, signing tens of billions of dollars of bidding contracts, though Europe, too, is signing energy deals with the region’s monarchies.

Yet while energy has been central to the new scramble for the Gulf, there is more to US frustration than mere oil and gas contracts. Unlike the fun and friendly “golf scramble”, the Gulf scramble may prove ferocious and furious.

Biden’s frantic – even desperate – attempt to shore up the dwindling authority of the US in one of its most important spheres of influence is driven by the fear that China is willing and capable of filling the void that America may leave behind in the region and beyond.

After all, the US pivot to Asia to contain a rising China has come at a time when Beijing has been increasingly focusing its attention on the Gulf and Middle East, to secure more trade and investments than ever before.

Beijing has established a naval base in Djibouti, deployed a flotilla to the Persian Gulf, and reached strategic partnerships with Algeria, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Iran. It has also staged massive naval drills with Russia and Iran.

Unlike the energy-sufficient US, China needs the Gulf region to supply it with the oil and gas resources it needs to sustain and strengthen its economic growth and military machine and to become a world power.

And that’s precisely what irks Washington. As the status quo superpower, America has dominated the region for decades whether through soft or hard power, including costly military interventions since the 1980 Carter Doctrine stipulated that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Persian Gulf.

It is not about to share all of that with what it sees as a revisionist Asian power that seeks to reshape the international order. After the USA team crashed out of the World Cup in Qatar, a popular joke on social media observed sardonically that this was the quickest that the US had ever left the Middle East.

Washington will insist on having a say regarding the shape and form of GCC-China relationships, which is sure to create new diplomatic, even geopolitical tensions. But as I wrote last year, the jury is still out on Beijing’s revisionism.

Unlike the Soviet Union, China is deeply integrated into the Western-led international system, and does not seek world domination through an alternative global ideology, even if it does insist on co-authoring the principles of a new world order as an equal partner.

And as Scholz writes in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs: “China’s rise does not warrant isolating Beijing or curbing cooperation. But neither does China’s growing power justify claims for hegemony in Asia and beyond. No country is the backyard of any other—and that applies to Europe as much as it does to Asia and every other region.”

Alas, history tells us that a rising power and dominant power are bound for a costly collision. But history also teaches us to learn from history; to see that accommodation and integration trump collusion and confrontation.

With more than its share of conflict and war, no region knows that better than the Middle East.