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Gulf States Have Sacrificed Uighur Muslims for Cash From China

How Saudi Arabia and the UAE, among other Arab Gulf states, have sold out a million 'brother Muslims' in detention camps for multi-billion dollar investments from China

Sebastian Castelier
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Protesters at a rally in solidarity with the Uighur minority in China which was later broken up by Hong Kong riot police. December 22, 2019.
Protesters at a rally in solidarity with the Uighur minority in China which was later broken up by Hong Kong riot police. December 22, 2019.Credit: DALE DE LA REY / AFP
Sebastian Castelier

The human rights of "people of all ethnic groups" living in China's westernmost region have been "effectively safeguarded." This was the bold assertion in a July 2020 Joint Statement backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates , Bahrain and the Sultanate of Oman, among others.

Yet, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the whereabouts of half a million individuals who live in Xinjiang and predominantly belong to the Uighur Muslim minority remain unknown, to date.

"Gulf countries, just like Iran, actively participate in supporting China’s policies," Paris-based president of the European Uighur Institute Dilnur Reyhan told me. Foreign affairs representatives of the four Gulf states signatories of the Joint Statement did not respond to requests for comment.

Since 2016, Chinese authorities have reportedly been cracking down on Xinjiang’s Muslim ethnic minority groups, restricting the right to freedom of religion and forcing over a million Uighurs into government-run "re-education facilities" where they undergo indoctrination programs. The goal, according to the New York Times, is "disavowing devotion to Islam."

Some experts say Beijing is also pursuing a "demographic genocide" as birth rates in Uighur areas reportedly plunged by more than 60 per cent from 2015 to 2018. The analysis of China’s official statistics revealed a campaign of "draconian measures to slash birth rates among Uighurs and other minorities," the Associated Press reported earlier this year.

Chinese officials have repeatedly slammed these allegations as "false accusations," arguing mass surveillance and government-run internment facilities are part of a war on terror aiming at tackling extremism. It follows unrest between mostly Muslim minority Uighurs and majority Han Chinese which caused the death of hundreds of people during several 'terror attacks.'

The presence of individual Uighurs fighting with ISIS in Syria have fuelled fears among the Chinese population. During his first and only visit to Xinjiang, Chinese President Xi Jinping said during a series of secret speeches, "We must be as harsh as them," and "show absolutely no mercy." 

A list of "75 behavioral indicators" considered as extremist includes praying in public places outside mosques, abruptly giving up drinking alcohol, growing beards for young and middle-aged men or wearing a niqab for women - a face veil worn, ironically, by millions of women across the Gulf.

Jonathan Fulton, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the UAE’s Zayed University and author of "China's Relations with the Gulf Monarchies," told me the situation in Xinjiang "does not capture the imagination in the Gulf the way many in the West would have expected it to do."

Reports about the Uighurs rarely make the headlines of Gulf’s state-owned local media. Indeed, a Saudi living in his country’s  Eastern Province told me, on condition of anonymity, that my inquiry was "the first time" he’d heard about Uighurs or their plight. "There is no focus on them here. Are they Muslims?" he queried.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Riyadh. January 19, 2016.
King Salman of Saudi Arabia meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Riyadh. January 19, 2016.Credit: Reuters

According to right groups, a key reason Gulf states keep a low profile on Xinjiang is to avoid drawing attention to their own rampant human rights violations. In 2018, Saudi agents killed and dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Human Rights Watch call the situation in Bahrain "dire" and that there is no possbility of "peaceful dissent" in the UAE. Reyhan said the position of Gulf countries comes as no surprise: "They too oppress ethnic, sexual and religious minorities."

Why Uighurs don't win Muslim solidarity

Zayed University’s Fulton offered another reason: Gulf states remain silent because "Uighurs are not ethnically Arab." Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking ethnic group related to the Turks through religion, ethnicity and language.

Uighurs, in common with all other refugees, are not entitled to seek asylum in the Gulf either, as not one of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries has ratified the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention. Some Uighurs reside in the region by virtue of holding work permits, but they are at risk of being deported to China if they lose their job.

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the collective voice of the Muslim world, has just once expressed its "deep concern" following reports that Muslim minorities in Xinjiang were denied the right to fast and observe their religious rituals during the month of Ramadan.

But none of the press releases published by the OIC since mass internments have intensified and became a global concern have ever questioned China about the re-education camps or human rights abuses. In the past three years, China built more than 260 new internment camps in Xinjiang to conduct what is "already the largest-scale detention of ethnic and religious minorities since World War II," as a BuzzFeed investigation revealed.

Workers walk by the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a “vocational skills education centre” in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China. September 4, 2018.
Workers walk by the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a “vocational skills education centre” in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China. September 4, 2018.Credit: Thomas Peter/Reuters

The OIC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

"The Muslims are silent. Their voice is not heard," Arsenal’s star footballer Mesut Özil wrote in a December 2019 tweet criticizing Muslim countries for not speaking up for the Uighurs.

Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Islam's two holiest sites and nominal leader of the Muslim community, or Ummah, has decided to "not jeopardize its relationship with China" over the fate of the Uighurs, Fulton believes. "If somebody were to issue a fatwa [religious ruling] about this issue, he [the scholar] would have to go through state channels before it could be released," the academic added.

The inference is clear: There won’t be any religious edicts made by Saudi clerics urging the welfare of the Uighurs. 

Indeed, in recent years, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has silenced Islamic religious figures, accusing them of promoting "extremist ideas" and opposing social reforms.

In neighbouring Kuwait, the Islamist parliament member Mohammad Hayef Al-Mutairi stressed to me that Muslim-majority countries should not bear sole blame for the lack of pressure on China. "Countries that praise freedom, democracy and human rights should have a role too," Al-Mutairi said.

$50 billion worth of investments

A Gulf citizen married to a Uighur told me regretfully his home region was sacrificing the Uighur cause on the altar of economic benefits. "Gulf states are now very weak economically, so they can’t say anything about China," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity .

Since the oil bust of 2014, hydrocarbon-dependent Gulf economies have been on the decline and increasingly dependent on China's growing global role as part of a broader economic pivot towards the East. Just one example: about 80 percent of the oil exported by Oman is shipped to China.

The Gulf’s economic diversification plans have also aligned with Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative, a massive network of land and maritime infrastructures to connect Europe, Africa and Asia. According to the China Global Investment Tracker, a data set covering China’s global investment, China invested more than $50 billion in GCC countries between 2016 and 2020.

Going forward, the People's Republic wishes to "cooperate more deeply” with the Gulf, Wang Jin, Associate Professor at Northwest University in China’s Xi'an told me. "The Chinese are very disappointed against Israel's selfish activities over ties with China, while the Gulf Arab states still maintain positive ties with China even against pressure from Washington," Jin said.

Drone footage of shaven-headed, shackled and blindfolded Uighurs detainees sitting on the ground before being transported on trains to a detention camp in Xinjiang province, China
Drone footage of shaven-headed, shackled and blindfolded Uighurs detainees sitting on the ground before being transported on trains to a detention camp in Xinjiang province, ChinaCredit: Twitter

The academic views the Belt and Road Initiative as "a game-changer from the political philosophy dimension." China, unlike most western economic partners, including the United States, follows a foreign policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

"The fact that China does not try to push kind of ideological agendas is very much appreciated," Fulton said, adding the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. disengagement from the Middle East brings Gulf states closer to China, "economically, politically, strategically."

Furthermore, the authoritarian stability praised by Xi Jinping aligned with the priorities of Gulf rulers who have long fear separatist movements and more recently, political Islam. 

U.S. presidential election: A voice for the Uighurs?

Abandoned by most Muslim-majority countries (Qatar and Kuwait did not sign the July 2020 Joint Statement but still remained silent) the Uighur community is left to rely on support from Turkey, with which it shares historical, cultural and linguistical ties. In 2009, then Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: "a genocide" was being committed.

But Turkey signed in the Belt and Road Initiative and became an "inevitable" transit point on the China-Europe road, the Commercial Attache of Chinese Embassy to Turkey said. Last year, China called on Turkey to support its "efforts to combat terrorist forces" in Xinjiang.

"Turkey did not take a pro-Chinese position thanks to the pressure of the Turkish public opinion that is overwhelmingly pro-Uighurs," said Reyhan, the President of the Paris-based Uighur Institute of Europe, one of the leading Uighur organizations in France.

Uighurs living in Turkey interviewed for this report, like Ahemaiti Ailijiang who resides in Ankara on a temporary residence permit since 2016, expressed a willingness to migrate to western and northern European countries, whom she viewed as safer and more stable in the long term. 

A June 2020 Joint Declaration signed by European countries, Canada, New Zealand and Australia urged China to "allow the High Commissioner meaningful access to Xinjiang." 

In the U.S., presidential election candidate Joe Biden spokesperson referred to the treatment of Uighur as a "genocide."

Donald Trump, who previously acknowledged he’d put speaking up for the Uighurs on the backburner because he was negotiating a major trade deal with Beijing, and who, according to John Bolton’s book, told China’s President Xi Jinping himself that mass detention camps for Uighurs was "exactly the right thing to do" has signed a bill that condemned "gross human rights violations" in Xinjiang and allowed the imposition of sanctions on "foreign persons."

The dispiriting conduct of the Gulf states regarding the Uighurs is a stain that won’t easily be erased. As footballer Mesut Özil concluded: History will remember not "the torture by tyrants" but, rather, "the silence of their Muslim brothers."

Sebastian Castelier is a journalist who covers Gulf Arab states and labor migration. His work has appeared in several Middle Eastern and international media outlets. Twitter: @SCastelier

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