Analysis

China Reaches Its Arm Deep Into the Middle East, Giving Israel Cause for Concern

Beijing doesn’t attend summits to end wars. It builds ports, lays telecommunications networks and sells arms as it surreptitiously amasses its political power

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at a Belt and Road meeting in Beijing, April 25, 2019.
Andrea Verdelli / Pool via Reuters

The new capital that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi is building near Cairo is already known as the white elephant that devours billions of dollars and doesn’t promise a return. It has received two elaborate housewarming ceremonies – one marking the construction of Cairo’s largest church, the other the dedication of the largest mosque – but the construction of housing for hundreds of thousands of Egyptians is proceeding sluggishly.

Some of the money for housing is being provided by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but the big money is coming from another source. China has committed to invest some $20 billion in the new capital and has provided a $3 billion loan for building the city’s financial district.

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What does China want in Egypt? Or in Saudi Arabia? Or in Iran or Pakistan? This month, CNN reported that the Saudis plan to develop a missile program with the help of Chinese technology.

It wasn’t the first report about the Saudi plans – in October, The Washington Post published images of a missile plant near Riyadh. More than a few eyebrows were raised in the U.S. Congress, and the White House was asked to respond to questions about the project amid suspicions that U.S. President Donald Trump failed to share this intelligence information with lawmakers.

A few weeks earlier, a storm erupted in Congress over Trump’s decision to provide Riyadh with nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and to bypass Congress by selling arms worth more than $8 billion to the Saudis despite lawmakers’ opposition. Trump said there was a state of emergency because of developments related to Iran, a situation giving him authority to circumvent Congress.

This explanation might have sufficed, but Saudi Arabia, an ally of Washington, also has a full strategic alliance with China – a status equal to that of Iran, in which China invested some $27 billion between 2005 and 2018 and whose trade with Beijing reached a similar sum in 2017. And so, while Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel are trying to blunt Iran’s influence in the region, there’s hardly a country in the Mideast where China isn’t involved in the economy or arms industry; it’s a player in Israel, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Ever since China adopted its Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, aiming to secure an economic hold on areas all the way to the Mediterranean, it has divided the Middle East (and East Asia) into five categories. The most important includes countries defined as full strategic allies; this category includes Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Algeria and the UAE.

A Chinese construction worker at the future Iconic Tower skyscraper near Cairo, May 2, 2019.
Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

China’s policy paper on its Mideast goals presented a three-pronged approach, with energy cooperation at the core, with trade ties and infrastructure investment building on this core. The third level consists of cooperation in high-tech, the nuclear industry and space.

Ports galore

To tighten its hold on Mideast countries, China founded the China-Arab Cooperation Forum, which holds an annual meeting at the ambassador level. This forum, founded in 2004, has picked up speed over the past two years, not just because of the Belt and Road Initiative, but also thanks to China’s assessment that its challenges in the West, particularly the United States, require it to find an alternative.

As part of the master plan, China devotes much of its investments to building and expanding ports, and to building industrial parks near those ports to establish links between plants and maritime shipping routes. China has invested billions in developing the Suez Canal and ports in Oman, the UAE, India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

According to China’s openly declared policy, such investments are made without political intentions; they’re merely for the prosperity of China and its partners.

The low profile of China’s policies in the region, as opposed to its unrestrained economic expansion, lets Beijing maneuver between conflicts without drawing fire from any side. This huge and rich superpower avoids attending conferences and summits meant to end wars and solve conflicts. It’s not a partner to the diplomatic efforts in Syria or Libya, it has no desire to address the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and it apparently has no position on the conflict between the United States and Russia.

But China isn’t really absent from these forums. The country spots opportunities and quickly takes advantage of them. Its soldiers aren’t deployed in the Middle East, but China lays telecommunications networks that allow it deep access to all aspects of life in these countries.

It uses soft power by developing tourism and encouraging tourists to visit countries in the region – thus reinforcing their dependence on China. Beijing conducts cooperation projects in education and culture, while labeling itself neutral without any political agenda.

Such an image provides China with public support in Arab countries, whose citizens despise the United States or fear Russian interference in their affairs. It would be a mistake to view China’s economic expansion as free of political influence.

The site of the future Iconic Tower skyscraper near Cairo being built by China State Construction Engineering Corp., May 2, 2019.
Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

Take the visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to China in February, when 35 economic and commercial cooperation agreements were signed, and apparently agreements on the sale of arms and military technology. These deals are estimated to be worth around $28 billion – and this doesn’t include the agreement signed between oil company Saudi Aramco and the huge Chinese defense conglomerate Norinco to build refineries and petrochemical plants at a cost of another $10 billion.

Military tech for the Saudis

The sale of Chinese arms to Saudi Arabia isn’t something new. Back in 1988, two years before the establishment of full diplomatic relations between China and the kingdom, Riyadh bought mid-range missiles from China capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

But since then, this trade relationship has taken off and reached tens of billions of dollars. Hundreds of Chinese advisers live in Saudi Arabia to help operate technology and military systems, and after the United States withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal in May 2018, Riyadh has aspired to become the largest supplier of oil to China – and reach sales of 1.5 million barrels a day, compared with 1.14 million today. If Saudi Arabia meets this goal, it could come at the expense of Russia, which sells China 1.66 million barrels a day.

Crown Prince Mohammed’s critics attack him for linking the kingdom up with China and signing major agreements while China puts Sunni Muslim Uighurs in prison camps and forces them to undergo “reeducation” – and harsh torture.

But it seems that when the Saudi kingdom is busy making a profit and looking for ways to harm Iran, the Uighur minority isn’t its most important issue. One would think the Saudi-Chinese relationship should please Washington and Israel; according to the simplistic view, any harm to Iran benefits the West. Thus if the Chinese market is stolen from Iran, that serves the American sanctions well.

The problem is that relations between China and Saudi Arabia also have military implications that should bother – if not very much worry – the United States and Israel. If Riyadh is really buying missile technology and if China is one of the countries that builds nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia, this will give China two firm foundations in developing Saudi technology. Meanwhile, the kingdom will skirt the restrictions that are usually part of technology projects, and military and nuclear ones all the more so, that are built by American companies all over the globe.

The paradox is that the United States is putting heavy pressure on Israel to stop cooperating in military technology with China but is totally silent when Saudi Arabia brings home Chinese technology, including that for building ballistic missiles. The lack of a public Israeli response to these revelations is interesting, too.

If a few decades ago Israel applied all its diplomatic efforts to block the sale of AWACS planes – Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems – to Saudi Arabia, today it seems Israel is apathetic about Saudi Arabia buying arms, as if the kingdom were a strategic ally.

Crown Prince Mohammed announced a few months ago that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will, too. True, Riyadh doesn’t have skilled people in the nuclear industry, in nuclear weapons especially, but the Saudis’ friends in China, Pakistan and India won’t hesitate to supply it with all its needs in this area. (And the kingdom plans to invest billions of dollars in the next few years in the latter two countries.)

When Prince Mohammed observes the harsh disagreements between Congress and the U.S. administration over the sale of conventional weapons to Saudi Arabia, and with his friend Trump possibly out of office a year and a half from now, it’s only natural that Riyadh would hurry and build an economic and military security net with the help of China and Russia. The question that will come up in the near future is who will watch over the development of the Saudis’ ballistic missiles and nuclear program.