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Matthew J. Smith

How U.S. Diplomacy can Counter China’s Influence in the Middle East

Chinese President Xi Jinping finished a December 2022 visit to Saudi Arabia by attending a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh, where he and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman agreed to advance their “comprehensive strategic partnership” on issues such as space programs and nuclear energy. Policymakers and analysts in Washington felt confident that longtime U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states would be unimpressed by China’s promises of economic partnership. However, China has since backed up its promises with diplomatic efforts, forcing the United States to adjust its regional assumptions.   

China’s diplomacy has succeeded where the United States historically has fallen short, especially in light of the Chinese-brokered rapprochement between longtime regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it would join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China’s political and security organization formed in opposition to Western-led institutions, as a dialogue partner. On top of this, in August 2023, Iran and the Saudis – joined by Egypt, the UAE, Ethiopia, and Argentina – were invited to join the BRICS (“Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa”), the economic group fostered by China and Russia in opposition to the Western-dominated G-7. Since the early 2000s, Washington’s Middle East policy has been focused primarily on the U.S. military presence in the region, which has drawn criticism from local populations.

Conversely, China has increased its regional engagement through offers of economic partnerships and the intent to bring peace and stability, as seen in a joint Saudi-Chinese statement that “affirmed their determination to develop cooperation and coordination in defense fields.” This sentiment was reaffirmed by Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud in his statement on being invited to join BRICS, confirming that Saudi Arabia would continue to be a “secure and reliable energy provider” to BRICS nations, and thus, the largest oil importer in the world, China.  With these recent diplomatic efforts in mind, China seems like a more prosperous and productive alternative in a region whose leaders are growing tired of an increasingly volatile relationship with the United States and feel abandoned by Washington’s foreign policy shift toward East Asia. Further, China’s lack of end-use monitoring requirements on assistance makes it a more attractive security partner to Gulf monarchies that find U.S. scrutiny of arms sales frustrating. Since the Saudi-Iranian détente, Saudi and Omani teams traveled to Sanaa to negotiate an end to the Saudi-led war in the country, an advancement widely credited to China’s diplomatic efforts in the region. 

If the U.S. were to allow China to become the hegemon in the Middle East, it would be making the same mistake that it made in Africa. As China’s investment in Africa increased during the 21st century, the U.S.’s trade has remained largely static since 2014. This has resulted in the expansion of China’s permanent presence in Africa; opening its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017 and its first naval base in Equatorial Guinea in 2021. Thanks to this strategy, African states and China have become economically interdependent, a troubling trend China could easily pursue in the Middle East. 

If the United States were to ignore increasing Chinese influence in the Middle East, it would be hindering its own prospects in the region’s emerging markets, especially in the Gulf, where the U.S. would be a more beneficial development partner by providing human capital, training, and investment focused on preparing the region for the post-oil economy before China’s foreign green energy investments begin to lead the global de-carbonization movement. As seen in Africa, Chinese foreign development aid often serves China’s long-term interests of profits and natural resource acquisition. This is not to say that U.S. aid programs are completely agenda-free; however, Chinese development aid is not the non-interventionist, “no-strings-attached” assistance Chinese officials proclaim it to be. 

The United States also would benefit from a diplomatic face-lift in the Middle East, a goal that would only be stymied by a closer relationship between Middle East allies and China. By renewing the U.S. relationship with partners in the Middle East, the Americans could remain the leader on long-term foreign policy goals of stability, development, and combating extremism in the region. 

The U.S. needs to take decisive actions to restore its standing and counter China’s increasing influence in the Middle East. One practical step it should take is to increase its support to find a lasting solution in Yemen. The U.S. Department of State has already announced its support for the ongoing reconciliation process in Yemen, and it should increases its active participation alongside the U.N. Special Envoy to Yemen and the International Committee of the Red Cross in convening negotiations between the al-Houthi fighters and the Presidential Leadership Council. Following a peaceful resolution, American policymakers should mobilize G7 and U.N. development aid to rebuild Yemen and assist the country’s recovery after the long and bloody civil war; develop an initiative to rebuild infrastructure; establish strong and accountable institutions; and convene national dialogues, similar to the aid programs directed at post-intervention Kosovo

The U.S. also should re-engage with the Palestinian Authority to restore its reputation as a viable partner to the Palestinian people. The Biden administration has already restored much-needed funding for programs like UNRWA, but more has to be done. First, it should immediately reopen the Palestinian Mission to the United States in Washington and the American Consulate to Palestine in East Jerusalem, both of which have been announced but have yet to be fulfilled. Second, the United States should unconditionally condemn the recent violent raids carried out by Israeli forces in Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank, which China has already done in the past, and is now going so far as offering to broker peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Finally, President Biden should hold a bilateral meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and strive to integrate the Palestinian Authority (and other Arab states like Jordan and Lebanon) into U.S.-led initiatives. 

Israel would strongly object to such actions, which has prevented U.S. action in the past. However, now is an important moment for the U.S. to stand up for the rights of Palestinians and push back against the anti-democratic reforms and extreme, inflammatory politics of the most recent Netanyahu government. The restoration of a strong bilateral relationship with the Palestinian Authority will help the United States counter any influence Beijing may gain from its previously announced initiative to become more involved in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. 

Finally, one area the United States has already found an opportunity to push back on Chinese influence is the sector of cultural diplomacy. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has already appealed to Congress for additional funding for UNESCO, which the U.S. will rejoin this year, to combat China’s cultural diplomacy programs and have a say over U.N. regulations regarding technology and artificial intelligence. Such cultural partnerships with Middle East allies can help foster positive relations and restore America’s standing in the region. Alongside funding to UNESCO, the U.S. should expand on student exchange programs, cross-cultural conferences, and continue restoring media programs such as Voice of America and the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which the Trump administration sought to stymie through executive appointments. Such programs are an effective and peaceful way to connect with local populations by developing an affinity for American music, media, and art. 

China’s recent diplomatic pushes in the Middle East have eroded the U.S. soft-power advantage in the region, but Washington still has time to adapt and demonstrate to its allies that it can be a useful long-term economic and security partner. To prove itself in this regard, the Biden administration should intensify diplomatic engagement with partners and allies in the region on conflict resolution, economic development, and cultural diplomacy to signal to both heads of state and local populations that America is willing and ready to become a partner for progress in a rapidly developing and strategically important region. 

Matthew J. Smith is a recent MPhil graduate in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. His research focuses on tribal-state relations in 20th and 21st century Jordan and great-power competition in the modern Middle East. He has previously written for Oxford Middle East Review’s blog. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Elizabethtown College.