When US President Joe Biden visits the Middle East next month, his hosts—in particular, Saudi Arabia—will probably try to persuade him to re-engage with the region. Far from allowing the United States to focus on strengthening its position in great power competition with China and Russia, they might say, the strategic disengagement from the Middle East gives China an opening to strengthen its own regional influence. But the reality is not so simple.
As a large producer of fossil fuels, the Middle East is clearly important for the United States. In fact, it was the exorbitant energy prices that forced Biden to try to repair his relationship with Saudi Arabia. Until recently, Biden shunned Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, for his alleged role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018.
Biden’s about-face highlights the extent of Saudi Arabia’s influence. And the Saudis will probably use this lever to urge the United States to maintain its military engagement in the Middle East. Warnings (which Israel is likely to echo) that China will quickly move to fill any security vacuum left by the US will seem to bolster their case further.
But China is unlikely to establish a military footprint in the Middle East, not least because its main partners in the region – Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – are adversaries of each other. While Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, are willing to do business with the same players, neither would have a good relationship with a country that cultivated a substantial security relationship with its main rival.
China’s hesitation to advance its security interests in the Middle East suggests that it is well aware of it. Even in the case of Iran, which could serve as a proxy in China’s strategic rivalry with the United States, China has avoided steps that could jeopardize its relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. For example, unlike Russia, it has refrained from supplying advanced weapons to Iran.
Even if China had more strategic leeway in the Middle East, it might not significantly expand its strategic footprint there, as it does not view the region as critical to its security. While the Middle East accounts for nearly half of China’s oil imports, the most important theater in the unfolding US–China cold war is East and Southeast Asia. China is no more willing than the United States to spend scarce resources in the Middle East.
In this context, China should continue to rely on diplomatic and economic tools to expand its influence in the Middle East. The only way to counter these efforts, it seems clear, is that the United States raise its diplomatic and economic game.
That means, first and foremost, abandoning the effort to frame America’s strategic competition with China and Russia as an ideological contest between democracy and autocracy. After all, the vast majority of countries in the Middle East are autocracies. The last thing the US needs is to alienate them with an overtly ideological foreign policy that enables China to portray itself as a more reliable, supportive and like-minded partner.
Economic engagement remains the most effective tool in China to extend its geopolitical influence. In 2020, the trade in goods between China and the Middle East totaled 272 billion US dollars. Though comparable figures aren’t available for America’s trade with the Middle East as a whole, the trajectory of the two powers’ trade with Saudi Arabia is revealing. While America’s trade turnover with Saudi Arabia grew only moderately between 2000 and 2021, from $20.5 billion to $24.8 billion, China’s soared. skyrocketing from $3 billion to $67 billion.
Technologically, the United States could offer China a new opening. The West has long used sanctions as a tool to punish “rogue” countries, with Iran as an example. But the comprehensive technological and financial sanctions imposed on Russia following the war in Ukraine have deepened fears among Middle Eastern countries that they too could be targeted.
As China builds up its technological and innovative capacity, it can present itself as a more reliable source of technology and a safer investment destination. Tellingly, no country in the Middle East has banned Chinese telecom giant Huawei’s 5G networks, despite strong US lobbying.
While the case for a new Middle East strategy focused on diplomatic and economic engagement is strong, any attempt by Biden to implement one will meet significant resistance. Befriending dictators will lead to accusations of hypocrisy — the last thing Biden needs months before the midterm elections in which his Democratic party is unlikely to perform well — and protectionist sentiment remains strong in the United States. But if Biden frames the change as part of a larger strategy to win the new Cold War with China, he might have a chance.