Era Of US Dominance In The Middle East Is Over, Now It's China’s Turn

Era Of US Dominance In The Middle East Is Over, Now It's China’s Turn
The Middle East, which holds a sizable portion of the world's fossil fuel energy resources, is becoming a new arena for the geostrategic rivalry between the two biggest economies in the world. China is vying for more influence in the Middle East, where the US has played a significant role in influencing regional developments for many years, as Washington views Beijing as "the biggest long-term threat to its security" and moves its policy focus to the Asia-Pacific. On the other hand, President Xi's visit last December has been observed as a highly publicized diplomatic interaction mark and the beginning of a new era in Western Asian politics. As part of its larger global economic and strategic goals, China has been rapidly attempting to expand its influence in the Middle East in recent years. It wants to do this by diversifying its access to natural resources as well as its economic and political influence.

China has been making significant investments in energy and infrastructure projects in the Middle East, especially as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to link China with other nations through a network of land and marine routes. China has been establishing business relationships with nations in Western Asia, especially, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Iran.

In this respect, China's Middle East policy is different from that of the US.  China favors trade and economic growth over political and military intervention.  For instance, Xi and the Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman signed 34 investment agreements that cover several diversified fields during Xi’s recent visit to the kingdom. Similarly, with Qatar, $60 billion worth of deals were signed by China for the purchase of liquefied natural gas. Moreover, Iran received a reported $400 billion investment commitment from China in 2021 in return for the supply of oil and fuel. These economic and trade engagements allow China to flex its economic muscle in the international arena. On the diplomatic front, China brokered a peace deal between Iran and Saudi, which have been at each other’s throats for decades.

The announcement of the surprise deal came on March 10 after four days of secret talks in Beijing. This diplomatic success story has opened the doors for China to increase its grip in the Middle East and support its larger aspirations on the world stage. As stated by Wang, who represented China in the talks, "China will continue to play a constructive role in handling hot-spot issues in the world and demonstrate its responsibility as a major nation.” There have been discussions between the two sets of officials in Iraq and Oman since 2021, but no agreements were made because both nations want a powerful state to play the role of guarantor.

In this regard, China has a history of a supporting role in the Middle East, has abruptly emerged as the new mediator, and sidelined the US, better known for focusing on its own interests in the region. According to Amy Hawthorne, deputy director of a non-profit organization in Washington, "there is no arguing around it — this is a big deal."  But in a broader sense, China's impressive feat puts it in a new league in terms of diplomacy and surpasses anything the U.S. has been able to accomplish in the region since Biden took office. There are various reasons for the US's declined power in the Middle East; in the Biden administration's National Security Strategy, the Middle East has slipped down some notches on the priority list, as well as too much focus on Iran makes the scope of the policy less ambitious when compared with past US presidents. In addition, the overconfidence of the US about its grip on the Middle East completely ignores China’s strength in posing a credibly counter-balancing threat in the region.  Furthermore, US-Saudi relations are already on less than firm ground due to the Biden administration’s disgruntlement over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the decision to cut oil production, all of which have been taken as the end of the Saudi’s monogamous marriage with the Americans. Hence, the Middle Eastern countries have found a kindred spirit in China’s leader Xi and tilted toward the East.

For this reason, according to analysts, the agreement also represents a growing pragmatic approach on the part of both parties, with Riyadh keen to defuse tensions that have sparked wars and fueled attacks on Saudi Arabia and its interests throughout the region, and Tehran seeking to revive its devastated economy. On the other hand, by defusing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, China is preventing possible restrictions on Chinese access to Gulf oil in an environment of escalating tension with the US because 70 % of its energy needs come from this region. Therefore, China needs a stable Middle East to keep its influence and interests there, and any unrest or conflict could have spillover effects on its economy. Thus, these loopholes in Biden’s NSS and US diplomatic limitations regarding Iran give China a growing quest to shape the world in its orbit. If things carry on as they are at the moment, China's meteoric rise is likely to be perceived as a direct threat to the United States' dominance of the global order.

The author is an M.Phil graduate in International Relations from COMSATS University, Islamabad, and can be reached at