China’s Digital Influence in the Middle East: Implications for US Relations 

By: Hugo Morrison

Picture Credits: Mehr News Agency, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Amid today’s increasingly competitive, crowded, and contested global landscape, marked by shifting alliances and dynamic relations, the Middle East is at the centre of a multifaceted global struggle involving two economic powerhouses: China and the United States (US). This geopolitical stage is set against a backdrop of telling trade statistics that reveal a remarkable transformation. Between 2000 and 2021, trade between the Middle East and China saw a noteworthy upswing, surging from $15.2 billion to $284.3 billion. In contrast, Middle Eastern trade with the US has grown more modestly, from $63.4 billion to $98.4 billion during the same period. In a time of global strategic competition, this expanding Middle East-China partnership has heightened tensions between the US and China, particularly given the US’ longstanding dominance in the region. While Middle Eastern countries have cooperated with China on energy and infrastructure projects, the presence of Chinese tech companies in the region has become a significant concern for US policymakers. Consequently, several Middle Eastern countries find themselves entangled in the ongoing rivalry between China and the US in the digital domain.

China’s digital cooperation with various Middle Eastern countries is increasing, with the region becoming a significant recipient of Chinese technology and digital infrastructure investments. Middle Eastern governments have embraced adopting digital technologies as a strategic move to promote economic diversification, sustainability, and the development of a thriving digital economy. Within this landscape, China has become a prominent player engaging in joint research, technology transfers, and knowledge sharing.

However, there are concerns about the implications of China’s expanding digital presence. There are fears that it could enable China to wield sharp power, manipulate political perceptions, advance authoritarianism, and undermine democratic values. Despite US efforts to limit Chinese influence, Chinese tech companies continue to expand in the region, leading to speculation that China aims to fill the void created by the declining US presence in the region. 

China’s Engagement in the Middle East  

In 2016, China published its Arab Policy Paper, emphasising the importance of establishing relationships with Arab nations based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence: “mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence.” Middle Eastern countries — particularly authoritarian regimes prioritising economic growth while showing little inclination for political liberalisation — are increasingly drawn to China’s development model, which differs from the Western liberalisation paradigm. It offers a path to economic growth while preserving national sovereignty without Western-imposed political and economic conditions. 

China’s Middle East engagement has primarily focussed on energy imports, with Arab countries supplying 47% of China’s crude oil. However, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) expanded China’s regional influence. China has engaged 18 Arab countries in the BRI and has invested over $123 billion in BRI-related projects since 2013, becoming the largest foreign investor and a significant trading partner for many Middle Eastern nations. In addition, China has demonstrated its adeptness in navigating complex relationships in the region, cultivating strategic relations with Iran while deepening its ties to Saudi Arabia and forging close cooperation with Israel despite its support for the Palestinian cause. 

The Digital Silk Road (DSR) is an original component of the BRI. It aims to promote digital connectivity between China and the countries along the BRI route. The Middle East, strategically positioned at the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and Europe, with a sizeable young consumer population and a robust digital infrastructure, offers substantial opportunities for Chinese tech giants like Huawei, Tencent, and Alibaba. By 2025, the region is expected to have 115 million 5G connections, 700 million mobile connections, and over 350 million mobile internet subscribers. These tech companies are involved in various digital infrastructure projects, including e-commerce, mobile payment systems, 5G networks, data centres, undersea cables, smart cities, cloud storage, and artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, Middle Eastern countries have recognised the importance of integrating digital technologies into their economies to diversify and realise their ambitious national visions and development plans.

Impact on US Relationships  

At the 2018 Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, Colin Kahl, then US Under Secretary of Defence for Policy, discussed the burgeoning relations between Middle Eastern nations and China, offering a sobering perspective. Kahl asserted that China lacked the intent and capability to foster mutually beneficial coalitions and to integrate the region’s security framework. According to Kahl, this contrasted with the US commitment to preserving the autonomy of all states while collectively constructing a regional security infrastructure. Kahl’s outlook represents an approach some analysts perceive as reflecting a perspective that divides the global order into a binary framework: authoritarianism versus democracy. Consequently, it has deepened divisions among countries and between regions, where nations find themselves compelled to choose between ‘us’ or ‘them.

While the US has historically been considered the primary security guarantor in the Middle East, in recent years, the region has witnessed a shifting geopolitical landscape due to perceived US disengagement. This was exemplified by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, the temporary freeze on US arms sales to Saudi Arabia in 2021, and the lack of response following the 2019 attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities. Middle Eastern allies have started exploring alternative arrangements and diversifying their trade relationships to adapt to the evolving global economic order. Consequently, countries have sought closer diplomatic and economic ties with authoritarian regimes, including China and Russia, to navigate the changing dynamics and reduce their reliance on the US. 

Despite these challenges, many Middle Eastern countries rely on the US for security cooperation, recognising its role in upholding regional stability. The US actively pursues military collaboration with Middle Eastern nations, providing defensive weaponry and intelligence support and maintaining a substantial military presence in the region. The US has bases in Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Djibouti, Oman, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. Shared concerns surrounding the perceived threat posed by Iran and its proxies — including the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, the Houthi armed movement in Yemen, and Shia militias in Iraq, among others — drive many of these security alliances. Additionally, the US continues to deploy forces and conduct military exercises as part of its ongoing efforts against ISIS and terrorism

5G Rivalry in the Middle East  

Even with its continuing role as the main security guarantor in the region, the US faces strategic competition in other areas that might undermine its position in the region. One such area where US rivalry with China becomes increasingly apparent is the deployment of 5G networks in the Middle East. 5G networks provide faster speeds and enhanced connectivity, benefitting many applications such as self-driving cars, smart cities, and advanced robotics. Its impact extends beyond civilian applications and holds significance for military capabilities, enhancing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems. In the Middle East, China’s 5G presence has raised substantial concerns regarding security and data privacy due to Chinese legislation that mandates cooperation with the government on national security matters, which could lead to misuse of technology for malicious purposes, including surveillance and data gathering.

Former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo warned that integrating this technology into critical information systems could hinder information sharing and collaboration with the US. The situation escalated in 2019 when President Trump issued an executive order restricting transactions involving technology deemed to pose “an unacceptable risk to the national security of the United States,” adding Huawei — China’s leading 5G provider — and its affiliates to the Bureau of Industry and Security Entity List. In April 2020, the US introduced the Clean Network Initiative (CNI) to counter Huawei’s global expansion and remove Chinese participation from global 5G networks.

This initiative underscores the pressure the US exerted on its allies to exclude Huawei from 5G networks. Unlike their European counterparts, many Middle Eastern nations have established partnerships with Chinese tech firms, putting them in a challenging position. They must carefully balance their US security alliances against their vital economic ties with China. 

UAE’s Huawei Gamble

Washington has employed tactics to limit its allies’ technological ties with Beijing, including threats to reduce intelligence sharing and imposing conditions on significant arms deals. One country that recently became the stage of competing interests and tensions between the US and China is the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where major network providers du and Etisalat partnered with Huawei to facilitate the implementation of 5G technology. Etisalat achieved a significant milestone in October 2019 by conducting the region’s first end-to-end 5G standalone call. The UAE decided to prioritise the implementation of Huawei’s 5G technology over a substantial arms deal with the US, leading to the suspension of the agreement. The deal was worth $23 billion and involved the acquisition of 50 F-35 jets, drones, and advanced munitions. The Biden administration pressed the UAE to terminate its contracts with Huawei or, at the very least, provide assurances that China-controlled networks would not compromise its regional operational effectiveness. Following the deal’s cancellation, the UAE purchased 12 L-15 jets from China. The decision may stem from recognising the limits of relying solely on the US. The move also reflects a more significant trend among Washington’s regional allies to diversify their sources of support and protect their interests amidst a shifting global landscape.

Implications and Future Outlook  

China’s growing influence in the Middle East has sparked concerns about the implications for the region’s political, economic, and security future. US officials have repeatedly warned that adopting Chinese telecommunications and information technology in the Middle East may pose significant security risks to its forces and their allies operating in the region. Despite US efforts to limit ties with Chinese companies, many Middle Eastern countries increasingly engage with these firms and leverage their geographic, financial and energy advantages to attract Beijing’s attention.

However, this shift only partially disrupts the status quo. The alliances formed with China do not exclude the possibility of continued cooperation with the US. The UAE’s pivot towards the East can be viewed as a balancing act in an emerging multipolar world, where the US retains its importance, particularly as a security guarantor, but is not the sole focal point. During the China-Arab summit in late 2022, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister said, “cooperating with the world’s number two economy is necessary, however, this doesn’t mean not cooperating with the world’s number one economy.”

It is essential to question whether China is seeking to consolidate a similar position in the Middle East as the US. The increasing presence of Chinese citizens and assets in the Middle East might mean that China may seek to enhance its military capabilities to protect its expanding interests. Indeed, China’s relationship with the Middle East is growing to encompass security aspects as well. China is negotiating arms deals with Saudi Arabia and Egypt and is said to expand a suspected military facility in the UAE. Moving forward, the US must be wary of adopting a zero-sum, ‘us’ versus ‘them’ approach in its statecraft, pressuring and sometimes coercing its allies. When left with a choice, there is a risk that such an approach could undermine US alliances, particularly as China’s economic model aligns with the political landscapes of many Middle Eastern countries. 

Conclusion  

Amidst these unfolding developments, we see how the deepening engagement between the Middle East and China in the digital domain has implications for US relations in the region. China’s expanding influence is disrupting the traditional established order and raising questions about future US relations in the Middle East. 

Chinese technology companies have firmly established a foothold in the region, playing a pivotal role in providing digital infrastructure. This, in turn, has led to growing tensions between China and the US as the Middle East becomes entangled in their rivalry. Middle Eastern countries are navigating a complex landscape where they seek to balance maintaining strong ties with the US and diversifying their partnerships. 

The allure of China’s economic power, technological advancements, and its policy of non-interference further add to the complexities of this situation. While the US has historically held significant influence in the Middle East, it is faced with the challenge of maintaining its position as China’s presence in the region grows. 

This complex situation will likely endure. The US has been the predominant strategic power in the Middle East for the past few decades, and that influence persists today. However, questions arise about whether it will maintain this status in the coming decades. The US must navigate the challenges posed by China’s growing presence in an emerging multipolar world. The evolving dynamics of the region call for careful consideration and adaptation by the US to maintain its influence in the face of China’s expanding role.

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