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  • Writer's pictureMaxim Savinykh

Who is China in the MENA?

Updated: Nov 18, 2022

General context

Since the 1980s, the main concept of the Chinese foreign policy was Deng Xiaoping’s formula “hide your ambitions and disguise your claws”. It meant that beyond Asia and the Pacific, Beijing was completely focused on economic relations, trying to engage in political relations at a very minimal level. This is especially illustrative in the context of the MENA region: the traces of the PRC’s political involvement in the region in the 1980s are almost impossible to find. As China emerges as a global power, questions about whether this concept remains relevant started appearing in the late 2000s [1], and in the mid-2010s, this discussion has become more pertinent [2]. Along with this debate inevitably comes the question whether China could replace the US as a security guarantor in the MENA region [3]–[5].

Andrey Dagaev (CIPE visiting fellow) suggests that China is implementing the “strive to achieve something” approach which means that “They [PRC] don’t assume the role of a gendarme, a global warden or a defining player on the world stage. At the same time, they don’t disappear completely, since their economic status doesn’t allow that. In fact, this means that the country imitates a boisterous political and diplomatic activity”. Such an interpretation of new Chinese foreign policy appears absolutely reasonable in a number of cases, like the Syrian or Ukrainian crises. At the same time, there are examples with other tendencies. Temur Umarov (Carnegie expert) and Servey Sevastyanov (HSE professor), by contrast, indicate that China has actually become an active political actor in Central Asia. Both specialists also point out that a political standoff between Beijing and Washington is an important part of the regional landscape. Umarov reminds us that “in 2020 the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his visit to Central Asia, highlighted the importance for Central Asian countries to counter China’s influence. China, responded to this using anti-American rhetoric. Beijing claimed that it is crucial not to allow the emergence of critical media and NGOs, which lead to the destabilization of local regimes”.

The above example clearly demonstrates that Deng Xiaoping’s formula of Chinese foreign policy is not as relevant anymore as it was before. The number of regions where Beijing is more politically involved is growing. Sevastyanov links this trend to the personality of China’s current leader, “who sets a course for the country's gradual emergence as a leader in the Asia-Pacific region and, for the long term, in the whole world. The result has been a gradual increase in global rivalry with the US”. In this regard, in academic and expert circles there are debates about, at least, two questions relating to the Middle East and North Africa: how the change of China’s role in world politics is going to impact the MENA region [1]; and whether Chinese economic presence in the region can develop into a political one. The announcement of joint military exercises of the PRC, Iran, Russia and, probably, Oman and Pakistan in autumn are indeed indicators for ongoing political changes.

Why does the MENA region matter to China?

The MENA region remains an important partner of China in matters of energy resources. In 2021 the PRC’s thirst for carbohydrates was satisfied by 50% from supplies provided by countries in the region [6]. The Chinese imports from the MENA region in 2020 equivalate to 128 billion of dollars, 74% being fossil fuels [7]. A reduction of Chinese oil consumption seems unlikely due to economic development [8]. According to the most pessimistic scenario, China’s oil intake will peak by 2035 and will then start to slowly decrease by 2050 [9]. Even if the PRC may reduce the import of carbohydrates from the MENA region [10], its share in the trade volume with the region will stay significant [11]. Furthermore, as Guy Burton (BSoG professor) notes, “China's interests go beyond oil and gas to include large scale infrastructure projects (like the involvement in the construction of the new Egyptian capital) as well as Gulf states' efforts to diversify their economies”. Gleb Doroshenko and Andrei Shelkovnikov (doctoral students of HSE, the authors of Telegram channel “Мозаика Залива” [The Gulf mosaic]) add that the Gulf region is especially appealing for China. They say that the most promising areas of mutual cooperation are “tourism, which includes both tourist flow in the future and construction of facilities (design, technology), telecommunications, renewable energy, smart cities and technology in a broader sense”. Indeed, Chinese involvement in the Gulf in terms of investments seems impressive, especially when compared to investments to the rest of the MENA region:

Table 1 Chinese investments in the Middle East and North Africa (without the Gulf) in millions of doll-ars since January 2020 until October 2022. Compiled on the basis of

Table 2 Chinese investments in the Gulf in millions of dollars since January 2020 until October 2022. Compiled on the basis of

These two tables demonstrate two important tendencies. Firstly, China still pays a lot of attention to carbohydrates in the Middle East and North Africa. However, as it was already mentioned, Chinese interests are no longer limited just by this sector. The countries of the MENA are a significant part of Beijing’s strategy towards the development of alternative energy. In the UAE, China invests more in alternative energy sources than in traditional ones. Moreover, one should not forget that exports to the MENA region constitute 5.39%, worth 139 billion of total Chinese exports [12]. Finally, the region has geographic value: it lies on international trade routes (Arab and Black seas), which are crucial to Chinese export capabilities (known as OBOR or New Silk Road). Actually, some infrastructural projects in the Middle East and North Africa, supported by Chinese FDI, are aimed at the development of these tracks. This way, even proceeding from the assumption that sooner or later China will start reducing its consumption of oil, the MENA will keep being an important region for Beijing. Furthermore, China is also attractive for the region itself. The above tables show that Beijing supports Gulf countries’ major source of income – the oil sector. The same trend is observed in trade relations between the actors. At the same time, the PRC contributes to the economic diversification of both Gulf and North African states, investing in different spheres. Speaking about FDI activity of China, Burton notes an important point: “this form of exchange is not a one-way road: especially in the case of the Arab Gulf states it's a two-way process, with Saudi and Emirati sovereign wealth funds and other companies looking to invest in China as well”. For instance, the equities’ portfolio of The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority in Chinese domestic shares is 1.4 billion of dollars as of the end of 2021 [13].

In general, Doroshenko and Shelkovnikov indicate that the monarchies of the Gulf perceive China as “a predictable, stable partner with whom there should be no serious problems in the long run. The excellent complementarity of the partners is not the least of these factors. Both sides are solvent; China needs energy resources and investment opportunities; the Gulf states need a reliable, major partner that can not only buy resources, but also participate in technology imports. A significant factor for the states in the region remains the policy of diversifying foreign policy relations, with an attempt to interact more and more actively with non-Western powers. China, along with India, is the most important partner for solving this problem”. For other countries, like Iran and Syria, China is one of the very few opportunities to get foreign financial and technological capabilities into their economies. Moreover, as Burton notes, “it [cooperation of the above actors with the PRC] also shows their rivals that they are not the international pariahs as some in the West or in the region portray them. That said, this is a somewhat one-sided stand, since Chinese investment is more a promise than a reality for now”. Indeed, Syria and Iran weren’t even included into the above tables, as there is no official data about Chinese investments into these countries since 2020. The reasons for this phenomenon, in case of Damascus, are found in the ongoing conflict. At least, as of today, Beijing, despite grand promises [14], participates just in small-scale aid programs in Syria [15]. However, the situation with Tehran is more complex.

FDI of the PRC into Iran between 2017 until 2019 amounted up to 7 billion of dollars. By comparison, this indicator for the same period towards one of the key partners of China - Saudi Arabia and Iraq were 11 and 6 billion of dollars respectively [16]. Thus, if the sanction regime against Iran is going to weaken one day, the PRC will rapidly back the Iranian market. No less important is that in recent years, Beijing has acquired almost a monopolist position in the Iranian market for foreign participants in terms of investment, trade and technology supply. For instance, the underground railway system in Tehran was completely built by China. It’s also impossible not to mention the changing structure of trade as a result of the Chinese presence even in those countries that have traditionally been oriented toward the EU. The example of Algeria is illustrative:

Table 3 The share of France, Italy and China in Algerian import in percentages. Compiled on the basis of FlowSelector=flow1

The table shows how the share of the biggest import partners of Algeria (France and Italy) has been decreasing for the last two decades. China, in return, has been experiencing high growth. Meanwhile, keeping this information in mind, it’s necessarily to remember that the EU countries still dominate Algerian exports. Furthermore, even in imports, Morocco and Tunisia are much less oriented towards China. Egypt and Libya, for its part, although increasing the share of PRC imports, this indicator is not as high as in the case of Algeria. The Chinese increased economic presence in North Africa nevertheless, causes displeasure in the EU [17].

Finally, the last point of this part is related to the political factor of mutual interests between the MENA region and China. As mentioned above, the region seeks to expand contacts with non-Western countries. This might be partially caused by a postcolonial syndrome. However, more importantly, the partnership with China lacks a value component. This differs significantly from relations with the US and the EU, whose foreign policy includes factors of human rights and democracy promotion. Although Western countries are not always consistent in the promotion of these values, in their relations with the MENA, the United States and European countries continually raise the issues of dissidents and inclusive institutions. The last top-level talks between American and the Saudi leaders are illustrative: “They [the US] know that China’s investments come without lectures, much less sanctions, for human rights violations. But Mr. Biden tried to make the case that freedom and innovation go hand in hand” [18]. Whereby the value rhetoric of the US turns into real actions in a number of cases as for example the US’ ban on weapon sales to Riyadh in 2016 due to their disastrous involvement in Yemen [19].

Under such circumstances, MENA countries perceive their western counterparts as unpredictable partners. For instance, Saudi Arabian intervention into Yemen occurred in 2015, but the US paid attention to the human rights agenda only a year later. A more recent examples is from this summer when Washington considered lifting arms sales ban to Saudi Arabia [20], which was strongly opposed in Congress due to Saudi Arabia's human rights violations [21]. Although subsequently Washington made a new weapon deal with Riyadh, there is no guarantee that a new, or even the current American administration, will not change its opinion. In this regard, the Western states are potentially unreliable partners for the MENA states. In the face of such ambiguity, any deal could potentially come under fire.

China, in this context, looks much more predictable as a stable partner for the MENA states. Whatever happens, in terms of human rights and democracy, in both the domestic and foreign policies of the Middle Eastern countries, Beijing will remain committed to the performance of its contractual obligations, as it is a matter of purely business interests. Such an approach seems to be one of the reasons for the PRC’ success in the region. At the same time, the lack of a values component in Chinese foreign policy shouldn’t be overestimated. Despite tensions between the US and MENA countries over human rights and democracy, Washington still remains a key provider of security for the most regional actors.

Overall it can be said that the PRC and the MENA are closely connected by mutual economic interests. The countries of the Middle East and North Africa will do their best to deepen and expand this partnership. China, in turn, will continue to increase its presence in the region. In this regard, the PRC simply has to defend its investments and trade routes. For this purpose, Beijing needs to pay more attention to the regional security and stability. Furthermore, the strengthening of China’s position in the MENA elevates Beijing to a significant regional actor and cements its position as a global anti-dote vis-à-vis Washington. However, such a strengthening in the economic dimension is still no match the the US’ military-political capabilities in the region. In order to be a real alternative to the West’s development and security model, China needs to transform its economic presence into a political presence being able to present itself as valuable security guarantor.

Where is politics possible?

Experts are mostly skeptical about the growth of Beijing’s political participation in the MENA region. Dagayev believes that “China will continue to adhere the primacy of economics over other facets of relations towards the MENA […] At this stage, it looks like the Chinese capabilities are limited to calling for peace, but not to take active steps to do so […] Reviewing the statements made by the Chinese leadership on the margins of the 20th CPC Congress, we notice that the focus of their attention remains unchanged. China is concerned with the problems of internal development. Regarding international issues, the most important challenges are the strategic confrontation with the US and the maintaining control over the South China Sea.”. William Figueroa (research assistant at the University of Cambridge Centre for Geopolitics) shares the same opinion: “China is certainly primarily interested in business and economic penetration, attempts to stay out of local politics as much as it can (to the extent that they do not affect business)”. Burton takes the similar view, but at the same time he adds that “it's [Chinese role in the MENA] certainly changing, but I think it's still the case that actual practice in terms of political involvement is lagging behind economic exchange. What is different from a few years ago is official awareness of the challenges posed by the region and the need for some Chinese reaction. But what that should mean is not fully developed; instead what you're seeing is discussions taking place in the periphery, among scholars and diplomats. But so far as I can see, it hasn't become a central government directive”.

On the example of the Gulf, Doroshenko and Shelkovnikov say that “China is not actively involved in regional politics yet […] Meanwhile, in recent years, the germs of security cooperation and joint military production [between China and the MENA] have begun to appear, which of course cannot be considered in isolation from politics. China is actively engaged in arms production with the KSA, regularly supplying drones to the UAE, which Abu Dhabi has used in Yemen and on the east coast of Africa”. Burton adds that “It has helped the Saudis counter American unwillingness to supply them with certain types of military equipment”. This, according to Doroshenko and Shelkovnikov, leads to the fact that “Washington is paying more attention to Beijing's actions in the region, worried about the loss of its influence in the Gulf. A striking example of this aspect was the US pressure on the UAE to stop the construction of a "Chinese military facility" in Khalifa port in Abu Dhabi. A similar situation is emerging around technology and interaction with China's Huawei in the development of 5G networks. Here, the US is worried about the transfer of its promising weapons to the countries of the region (F-35 aircrafts), in particular the UAE, due to possible data leakage”.

Despite these incidents, the monarchies of the Gulf continue to maintain allied relations with the US, while diversifying its foreign policy through the development of relations with China. Beijing, in turn, doesn’t comment Washington's meddling in Gulf countries' ties with PRC. However, as the global confrontation between the two powers escalates, the US pressure on the region will increase. The Central Asian scenario, in which Beijing and Washington engage in a public controversy in a regional context, seems increasingly possible. Under such circumstances, China risks to lose some clout in the Gulf, like it has already happened in the case of Khalifa port. The Persian Gulf becomes more and more important for the Chinese security concerns. Most of our experts said that Beijing is not interested in involving this sphere unless it effects economic positions of the PRC. However, any destabilization in the region affects them. As bright example serves the attacks on the oil tankers in 2019, for which Iran was accused. In response to these events, Western and Gulf states organized patrols in the area of attacks and put pressure on Tehran. The PRC didn’t join these actions despite the fact that these incidents had an impact on China through the rise of oil prices and overall flow of goods. In 2019 in response to the aforementioned events, Beijing, Tehran and Moscow announced the formation of a Marine Security Belt which involves joint navy drills. Despite some minor joint naval exercises with China as a participant, the aforementioned events had the effect to institutionalize joint maritime drills. Therefore it can be said that Beijing is taking a more active role in the region’s security problems. This statement sounds especially relevant in view of Beijing's economic influence on Tehran. In this regard, the participation of the PRC in JCPOA captures our attention. The adoption of the UN resolution 1929 on sanctions against Iran, which made the Islamic Republic agree to talks with the P5+1 group (China, France, Russia, UK, US + Germany) and the conclusion of the Iranian nuclear deal would not have been possible without Beijing’s active role in these processes [22]. Today, Washington's pressure on Tehran is undoubtedly serious and, as we have seen when analysing the economic dimension, it is forcing Beijing to significantly reduce its cooperation with Iran. At the same time, China continues to buy Iranian oil, although not in the same volumes [23]. Moreover, Beijing keeps being an important source of technological import to the Islamic Republic [24]. It seems that without such a support from Beijing, it would have been easier for Washington to put pressure on Tehran. In this regard, it becomes obvious that the resolution of Iranian nuclear problem depends, among other things, on the PRC’s position.

All the above examples referred only to the Gulf. It appears that due to the region’s value for China in terms of economy, the engagement of the PRC in politics will be occurring mostly there. In the meantime, it’s possible to witness elements of a Central Asian scenario in North Africa, which was described at the beginning of the article by Umarov. This way, US defense secretary Mark Esper, during his visit in North Africa in 2020 publicly criticized China's activities in the region [25] [26]. In particular, he stated that the Washington will do all its best to counter the expanding influence of Beijing in the region.

The point is that, although China is not as economically strong in the North Africa as in the Gulf, Beijing increases its presence in the region and thereby seriously competes with Western countries. This helps those countries that either promote an anti-Western agenda (Algeria) or simply seek to diversify their external ties by reducing dependence on Europe and the United States (Egypt). Accordingly, the less a country is economically dependent on another, the more foreign policy options it has. Therefore, in addition to its economic role in the region, China has been assuming a more political role in the past few years.

Not a purely economic actor anymore

Today, China’s economic role in the MENA countries is not incompatible with the political one anymore. The PRC is a major consumer of the region’s energy resources and a powerful driver of economic modernization and diversification. However, such important regional issues like the Syrian crisis or the Israeli–Palestinian conflict remain without serious participation of China. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to describe Beijing’s presence in the MENA as “an economic giant, a political dwarf and military worm”. On the contrary, during the last years, the PRC has started to engage in spheres which go beyond pure economics. In some cases, like arms sale such involvement derives from business interests. In others, as the Iranian nuclear problem or the increased security concerns in the Persian Gulf, this is a consequence of China's emergence as a global security player. In the near future, we can therefore expect China to take an even more assertive political role in the region.

The much-anticipated confrontation between Chinese interests and the US dominant role in the region is going to be more acute. Increased US pressure on regional partners may not always bear fruit (as seen in the case of Algeria). As it sometimes actively obstructs Chinese security related goals, as seen in the case of the planned military facility in the UAE, a more direct form of conflict between the two giant seems to become more likely.

Maxim Savinykh is an independent analyst writing for Ishtar MENA Analytics from St.Petersburg. He is currently finishing his master's in Comparative Politics of Eurasia at the Higher School for Economics in St. Petersburg. His most recent research focuses on Iran's nuclear aspirations.

The author wishes to acknowledge the valuable insights of the following academics:

  • Andrey Dagayev - CIPE visiting fellow and the second year master’s student at National Chengchi University

  • Andrey Shelkovnikov - PhD student at Higher School of Economics

  • Guy Burton - Adjunct Professor at Brussels School of Governance, and freelance writer and consultant

  • Gleb Doroshenko - PhD student at Higher School of Economics

  • Sergey Sevastyanov - Professor at Higher School of Economics

  • Temur Umarov - Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

  • William Figueroa - Research Associate at the University of Cambridge Centre for Geopolitics


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Giulio Piumelli
Giulio Piumelli
Nov 16, 2022

Well written and very interesting article!

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