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12 May 2023

China's rising power and influence in the Gulf

New policy paper compares the approaches adopted by both China and Western states in the Gulf and explores how the two can mutually prosper in the region

Panel discussion China-Gulf relations
Dr David B Roberts and Mr Ahmed Aboudouh were joined online by Dr Chuchu Zhang and Dr Dawn Murphy from China and the US.

China is a relative latecomer in the Gulf but today seems to be playing an increasingly important role in the region. Xi Jinping’s visit to Jeddah in December 2022 for the first Summit fuelled speculation that China was taking a more strategic role in the Gulf, announcing months later that they had facilitated a reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

But were the mediation breakthroughs as profound as many think? How does China frame its presence in the region? And what does China’s presence mean to both the Gulf and the rest of the world? For the launch event of a new policy paper titled, 'Culture, History and change - The Gulf in between the West and China,' experts from the UK, US and China came together to discuss China's rising power and influence in the the Gulf with moderation by Mr Ahmed Aboudouh, an experienced journalist and researcher in international relations.

The paper, by Dr David B Roberts from King’s College London and Dr Chuchu Zhang from Fudan University, provides a comparative perspective of the approaches taken by Western states like the US and UK, and China in the Gulf region with recommendations for how China and the Western states can leverage their areas of expertise in order to mutually prosper in the Gulf.

In the talk, Dr Roberts highlighted how the concept of engagement - whether good or bad – is an implicit part of debates about China or the Gulf, with principled arguments on both sides. He made reference to the UK Foreign Secretary’s recent remarks that simplifying and ignoring China from many perspectives, including the British perspective is ‘impossible, impractical and unwise.’ 

“Engagement is the only way to go if you want to try to exert some influence and change things – is this easy, absolutely not by any means”.

Dr David B Roberts

Dr Chuchu Zhang discussed in depth China’s presence in the region, and what this means for the world and the Gulf. She said that Beijing has sought to create two impressions to differentiate themselves from Western states: “First of all, it is very close to the Middle East – we are both oriental civilisations… and both used to be colonies or semi-colonies…, and second is that we are a newcomer and therefore can offer something different from the established powers. [China] insists on a non-interference policy in the region and offers an alternative for the region to choose from.”

“China knows very well that it is a latecomer… it knows its capacity for investing resources is incomparable to not only the US, but France, the UK and other established powers. Its soft power remains weak compared to the other powers so China knows it should act as a different power and it should distinguish itself from the established powers, not only in the Middle East but in the developing world”.

Dr Chuchu Zhang

Speaking of China’s involvement in the reconciliation deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March this year, Dr Zhang noted that while China played a role, the intention between the two to restore ties had existed long before: “In the end, China became the place where both sides decided to declare their reconciliation…why, because China is a big power and neither Russia or the US would be in the right place.”

Dr Dawn Murphy from the US National War College spoke of the need to look at the first Summit between China and the Gulf in a comparative perspective; “the China Arab States cooperation forum has been meeting since 2004, it meets every two years and although this was the first Summit level, it’s an ongoing institutionalised part of relations.”

Dr Murphy mentioned the importance of thinking about the characteristics and deterioration of Sino-US relations since 2017 in China's role in the Middle East, “Increasingly China’s behaviour globally is seen as threatening in the political and economic and security realm… that is, I think, impacting some of the behaviour towards the Middle East”.

“It’s important not to lose sight of overlapping interests between the US and China in the Middle East – whether that be preventing inter-state war, ensuring terrorism is not an issue, oil security etc.”

Dr Dawn Murphy

Watch the recording

In this story

David  Roberts

Senior Lecturer