The Gulf States differ from US-China polarity. Saudi Arabia and UAE won’t align with a coalition against China, Russia, or Iran due to their interests.
In the pursuit of broadening their military alliances, the oil-rich nations of the Gulf are becoming entangled in an escalating contest for global supremacy waged between the United States and China. Amidst this grand theatre of power, a climax is reached as one of America’s closest regional allies, the United Arab Emirates, sets its sights on an unprecedented military exercise with China – a revelation unveiled by the Chinese defence ministry in the waning days of the previous month.
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A significant collaborator with the United States on the military front, the UAE has shared the battlefield with American forces on six occasions and has been bestowed with the latest and most cutting-edge weaponry that Washington has offered within the Middle East. However, the narrative is shifting with the advent of the China-UAE Falcon Shield-2023 joint air force exercise, a name resonating with both ambition and assertion. This distinctive drill, slated for the unfolding month of August, will unfold its wings in the far-flung landscapes of China’s north-western Xinjiang region, a terrain brimming with both intrigue and anticipation. While an exact date eludes us, the mere mention of it triggers an impending crescendo in the chronicle of international relations.
Geopolitical ballet amidst shifting alliances
The orchestration of this exercise marks the zenith of a series of strategic moves made by China within the traditionally American domain of the Middle East. Its orchestration becomes all the more poignant as the Gulf nations endeavour to disengage from a global order that seems to be fracturing due to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. In tandem, the United States’ interest in the Gulf appears to wane, with its gaze pivoting towards the containment of China’s meteoric ascent. These currents set the stage for a geopolitical ballet where the UAE and its fellow Gulf states grapple with their positioning in this ever-shifting landscape.
To the world, the UAE asserts that such collaborations are threads woven into its enduring commitment to bolster international cooperation across diverse domains. It professes a mission to buttress global peace and stability, underpinning its actions with a veiled intention to embrace the future through unity. The UAE’s dance of diplomacy knows no bounds, encompassing joint and multilateral manoeuvres with allies spanning the globe – from the heart of Europe to the reaches of Asia and beyond.
A concealed narrative unfolds in this Gulf-China-US drama, as deftly outlined by Hasan Alhasan, an astute voice in Middle East Policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Here lies a subtle communication to the United States, a subtle signal of a partnership that might not be aligned with anticipated expectations. It is a triangular dance of nations, a delicate balance where Gulf States acknowledge that their burgeoning alliance with China does not transpire in isolation from the ripple effects that resonate back to Washington.
The Saudi-US-China triangle and diplomatic intricacies
Analysts dissecting the complex dance of global powers highlight a pivotal juncture in the Middle East, one ignited by the resonance of former US President Barack Obama’s strategic “pivot to Asia.” This recalibration of America’s military and diplomatic focus eastward created a fissure that China astutely perceived as an opportunity amidst shifting dynamics. The pivot left regional states questioning the erosion of the US commitment to their security needs, leaving a void that resonated louder than words. For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, this apprehension crystallized when they faced substantial attacks on their soil in 2019 and 2022 respectively – assaults attributed to Iran or its Yemeni Houthi proxy. The response from Washington, notably lackluster, underscored a shifting landscape.
The reverberations of these perceived security shortfalls in Washington led to an unexpected chapter, an epoch where China’s presence burgeoned in the Middle East. This growth, a direct retort to the region’s ascending significance, epitomized the dearth of practical solutions to the Gulf’s ever-mounting security anxieties. The culmination of over three decades of US strategy to isolate Iran yielded scant results, leading experts to question the dividends of such a course.
As the US seemed reticent or incapable of maintaining its role as a reliable security guarantor, the Gulf States underwent a metamorphosis. Finding themselves unequipped to fill the ensuing vacuum, they charted a new course towards greater autonomy, establishing a symbiotic reliance on China’s emerging influence. This narrative, articulated by John Calabrese, a distinguished figure at the Middle East Institute, underscores a pervasive perception that the United States’ commitment to uphold its security pledges was either faltering or insufficient.
Yet, in the midst of this geopolitical tapestry, Saudi Arabia endeavours to paint a nuanced portrait of its alliances. Its overtures towards other international partners are evident, asserting that its connections extend beyond the American realm. A glimpse into Saudi Arabia’s evolving stance comes through the words of Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, the kingdom’s ambassador to the US. Addressing queries about potential alignment with Russia during the Ukrainian conflict, she deftly states the government’s strategy of comprehensive engagement across the spectrum of global actors.
Amidst these intricate dynamics, the United States, resolute in its stance, rebuffs claims of a retreat from the Middle East. The pledge to safeguard its allies, particularly against the backdrop of Iran and its proxies, remains resolute. However, the complexities deepen as Saudi Arabia seemingly tests the strength of this commitment. Emerging reports suggest that Saudi Arabia is contemplating a formal agreement with the Biden administration, linking the recognition of Israel with an extension of security guarantees. This negotiation, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, carries the condition that Saudi Arabia distances itself economically and militarily from Beijing. The intricacies of this diplomatic web further illustrate the layers of negotiation and strategic alignment in this evolving landscape.
Within this realm of realpolitik, observers are keenly attuned to the prospect of change in the US administration. Analysts like Alhasan predict that Saudi Arabia, cognizant of potential shifts in Washington, will carefully calculate its moves, possibly awaiting a new government’s arrival before striking any significant accord. This anticipation underscores the transient nature of international alliances, where strategic decisions pivot on the rhythm of leadership transitions.
China’s artful entry as a key Gulf arms supplier
China’s ambitions to establish itself as a formidable player on the global arms stage are no clandestine affair. President Xi Jinping has explicitly stated that the construction of a robust military stands as a pivotal facet of the nation’s unfolding era of “rejuvenation.” The spectre of China’s ascent draws keen attention from the United States, with one American official underscoring China as the sole nation possessing the geopolitical potential to emerge as a substantial adversary to the United States.
Nonetheless, analysts contend that Beijing’s path to contesting American technological supremacy and military outreach will be a gradual one, particularly in the Middle East, where its historical military role has been marginal. Within this narrative, China takes on the role of an alternative, a supplementary option for the Gulf states. Yun Sun, who helms the China Program at the Stimson Center, a notable Washington-based think tank, articulates this view. She asserts that while China aims to challenge and erode the United States’ customary influence in the region, it lacks both the capacity and inclination to supplant the US entirely.
The tussle for influence over the Middle East is anchored in the arms trade, where both the US and Europe stand as the foremost suppliers. Remarkably, four of the top ten importers of US arms are Gulf Arab states: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE. However, China has managed to make inroads, capitalizing on openings that emerge due to the shifting dynamics of the global stage. For instance, last year witnessed a bilateral accord between China and Saudi Arabia to collaboratively manufacture drones within the kingdom. Additionally, the UAE’s acquisition of advanced trainer jets from China underscores the incremental shifts in the regional military landscape.
These strategic purchases from China can be partly attributed to certain constraints that arose under the Biden administration’s policies, limiting the sale of arms to Gulf states. Hasan Alhasan, a prominent voice in this discourse, posits that while there exists an inherent preference for US equipment, the Gulf States are keen on diversifying and localizing their defence procurements. This is a testament to their strategic agility in navigating the intricate landscape of international relations.
Calculated diplomacy amidst global power shifts
The trajectory of Gulf States’ deepening engagement with China presents an intriguing juncture that raises questions about the extent of their willingness to challenge Washington and the potential costs they would deem acceptable to relinquish their burgeoning ties with Beijing. This dynamic dance underscores a complex interplay of interests and aspirations that shape the geopolitical theatre.
The multifaceted relationship that Gulf States are cultivating with China serves a dual purpose, as experts posit. It offers economic, diplomatic, and military benefits, while concurrently affording these states a strategic advantage in their dealings with a United States that remains wary of China’s expanding footprint in the region. This intricate alliance-building is both a pragmatic manoeuvre and a strategic lever to navigate the global chessboard.
However, amidst the nuanced symphony of diplomacy, not all voices harmonize on the same note. Mohammed Baharoon, a prominent figure in this discourse, aptly emphasizes that this relationship does not conform to a simplistic binary of alliance or opposition. The Gulf States’ partnership with China is not a fleeting honeymoon, nor is it headed for an abrupt divorce. Instead, it is a partnership that is growing and expanding in multifaceted directions, particularly in the economic domain.
The Gulf States’ stance distinguishes itself from the ideological polarity that characterizes the US-China relationship. The notion of joining a coalition against China, Russia, or Iran would not align with the interests of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Their priorities gravitate towards maintaining autonomy and advancing their own strategic objectives. The diplomatic tapestry woven by these states reflects an astute grasp of their own geopolitical interests, one that remains agile and responsive in a world in flux.
The astute observation by Yun Sun from the Stimson Centre encapsulates a truth that resonates deeply. Beyond the manoeuvring for leverage against the US, there are shared objectives and agendas that extend beyond the frame of the US-China relationship. The intricate interdependence of Gulf States and China encompasses realms that transcend immediate strategic calculations.