The Middle East has been caught in the crossfire of the US-China competition. Following the devastating blows of the epidemic and four years of global volatility under Donald Trump’s administration, several Middle Eastern states have exhibited indicators that this level of warfare simply cannot continue.
But, as the year comes to a close and a whirlwind of diplomacy picks up speed, another geopolitical fault-line has emerged: the Middle East has become a political and economic battleground for the United States and China, despite the US and China’s repeated attempts to keep this powerhouse rivalry at bay.
In comments that demonstrate how worried the Middle East’s leaders are, a high-level Emirati official earlier this month voiced despondency about the US-China standoff.
“What we are concerned about is the delicate line between severe competitiveness and a new Cold War,” Anwar Gargash, the UAE leadership’s diplomatic advisor, said last week at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“Because I believe we, as a little state, will be badly impacted by this, but we will not be able to influence this competition in any manner, even positively.”
Gargash acknowledged rumours that the UAE, a major regional US ally, has shut down a Chinese facility in response to US claims that it was being used as a military base. He made it plain that Abu Dhabi was only paying lip service to US intelligence; the UAE did not concur with Washington’s assessment of the site. Simply put, Abu Dhabi did not want to irritate a critical partner.
However, the United States will not always win the war for influence in the country. Abu Dhabi appears to have chosen to cease amusing America days after Gargash’s remarks. It was postponing a multibillion-dollar purchase of F-35 fighter jets built in the United States, the first of its type with an Arab country. The deal was conditional on the UAE eliminating China’s Huawei Technologies Co. from its telecommunications network, according to the US. Washington argued the technology presented a security danger to its weapons systems, particularly the “crown jewel” aircraft.
Abu Dhabi is adamantly opposed. According to an Emirati official, the decision to remain with Huawei over the F-35s was based on a “cost/benefit study.” While US officials have attempted to downplay the significance of the event, insisting that the sale has not been cancelled, Abu Dhabi has established a new tone. Abu Dhabi does not aim to constantly comply with US demands towards China, and it rejects Washington’s assumptions about Chinese economic ties camouflaged as covert military activity.
It’s an event that might pave the way not only for the Gulf superpower, but for an entire region in which China’s quickly expanding commercial links transcend old geopolitical rivalries and the US’ long-running rule may be coming to an end.