President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping (C) is welcomed by Emir of Riyadh Faisal bin Bende bin Abdulaziz (L) and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan (R) at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on December 07, 2022.

President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping (C) is welcomed by Emir of Riyadh Faisal bin Bende bin Abdulaziz (L) and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan (R) at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on December 07, 2022. Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry / Handout / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

How China is winning the Middle East

China is working to present itself as a responsible alternative to the U.S. in the Middle East, just as many are questioning Washington’s long-term commitment to the region.

Amid the recent catastrophes in the Middle East—the renewed Israel-Hamas war; widening violence in Lebanon, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea—one player counts the past year a success: China. 

Beijing stacked up strategic win after win, not just expanding its economic presence, but convening leadership summits, brokering peace deals, and even holding a joint military training exercise with one of the U.S.’s most important allies in the region. While shifts in power and influence often become evident only after the fact, history could one day look back on 2023 as the year that China truly began to win the Middle East. 

It is easy to see why states in the Middle East have sought closer ties with China. Collaborating with a military powerhouse that is not Washington helps them shed U.S. dependency—a goal that even close allies like the UAE have expressed repeatedly in the past decade. 

But what are China’s goals? A look at Chinese sources reveals efforts in the political, economic, diplomatic, and military realms. 

Build economic ties

Chinese sources frequently talk up the centuries-old links between China and the Middle East; they note, for example, the UAE has historically been home to over 100,000 ethnic Chinese. But as with its other global initiatives, the original linchpin of Beijing’s efforts are economic. China sees great economic opportunity in the Middle East, especially with the energy-rich Gulf states, whose ties with China have steadily grown over the last decade. 

“Belt and Road Initiative'' partner countries have increased their imports of Chinese products by 8.9% in the past decade alone, while in 2021, bilateral trade between the Persian Gulf countries and China grew at a record 44.3%. When the global economy slowed in 2022, trade between the Gulf countries and China still grew 27.1%, a stark contrast to the falling trade between China and both Japan and the United States. 

This is further reflected in financial trends: over 42 trillion RMB (about $6 trillion) was used for international payments in 2022, raising it to  the world’s 5th most popular currency. Beijing has already expressed a desire to use these ties to take on the American “monopoly” in oil-producing countries, which carry a “dollar hegemony.” 

China views these tightening economic ties as a means to expand its political influence in the region. For instance, China’s “Official Policy Document on Arab Countries” describes the advantages of “wooing” Arab states through investment and trade, aerospace technology through the Beidou navigation system, as well as “cooperation in weapons and equipment” and “joint military training.”

This pathway is illustrated by the relationship between China and the UAE. Closer judicial and economic cooperation in the early 2000s led to alignment on the “Taiwan Issue” in 2010. Chinese leader Xi Jinping made an official visit in 2018, followed by naval “goodwill” missions in 2020. In 2022, the UAE and China held meetings on counter-terrorism and de-radicalization, which were followed by August’s Falcon Shield 2023 joint air force training exercise. Notably, the exercise was held in China’s restive Xinjiang region, where the Chinese government has reportedly detained more than 1 million Muslims in reeducation camps.

Reduce American power

Many of China’s earliest strategic gains in the Middle East were with states that have been traditionally hostile to the United States. In 2021, for instance, Beijing and Tehran entered a 25-year agreement covering political, economic, and military areas. This, of course, complicates U.S. policy in the region.

But more recently, Beijing has targeted longstanding U.S. allies with growing success. Soon after their 2023 joint military exercise, for instance, the UAE announced that it will join the China-aligned BRICS bloc this month. Saudi Arabia is also reported to be considering joining.

These traditional U.S. allies note how closer economic ties with China also provide a kind of balance to the security focus of the U.S. and keep their countries from becoming overly reliant on Washington. Last August, for example, Qatar’s Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said,  “In the same year we were designated as a non-NATO ally to the US, we also signed three new energy deals with China.”

China has been keen to present itself as a responsible alternative to the U.S. in the Middle East, just as many are questioning Washington’s long-term commitment to the region or balking at U.S. demands. For instance, observers noted that the UAE pulled out of the US-led maritime coalition, which protects UAE’s sea lanes, just as Washington was asking states to reduce their ties with Russia and China.  

Thus, China’s narrative in this effort is one of not just opportunity for Middle Eastern states, but constant subtle or overt comparison between U.S. and Chinese goals in the region. For instance, China’s Consul General in Dubai, Li Xuhang, published an article in the UAE’s Manifesto newspaper.  Titled “China is an Opportunity for The World,” the article juxtaposed the economic opportunities for the UAE and wider region brought about by the Belt and Road Initiative with the “zero-sum Cold War mentality” and “confusing noise” from American “China threat” rhetoric. Similarly, when Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, the UAE, Bahrain, and Oman, he talked up China’s commitment to “mutually similar political environments” as the non-democracies of the region. Even before the latest wave of anger at the U.S. support for Israel’s offensive in Gaza, this narrative has met with positive effect. Deputy Secretary-General of the Arab League, Hussam Zaki, provided a typical statement, stating, “Arab countries can no longer find sincere friends like China in the world.” 

Beyond the region

Beijing’s regional diplomatic feats—for example, brokering a resumption of diplomatic relations between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran or hosting an emergency summit of Muslim foreign ministers to pressure Israel to stop its military operations in Gaza—also are viewed for their effect upon issues closer to home. Much of the CCP’s early regional outreach centered on the Taiwan issue, as Beijing and Taipei contested diplomatic recognition. Today, with only 12 of the 193 United Nations member states still keeping formal ties with the Republic of China, that battle has largely been won. Yet it will remain a primary concern for the CCP as long as the issue remains. The Chinese Consul General in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Wang Qiming, recently said Beijing would “continue to carry out friendly exchanges with other countries around the world on the basis of adhering to the one-China principle.”

Chinese experts also discuss how these efforts matter to other domestic troubles. For example, Falcon Shield 2023’s location was not selected by happenstance. As Professor Zhu Weilie of Shanghai International Studies University said, it was meant to warn “Uyghur separatists [in Xinjiang] who seek support in the Islamic world, reminding them that such seeking is in vain.”   

Military gains

The arms trade also factors heavily into China’s efforts in the Middle East, aligning with China’s larger aim to supplant Russia as the preferred alternative to Western industry as an arms supplier. Overall, Chinese arms sales to the Middle East  jumped by 80% in the last decade. Here again, while China primarily targeted U.S. adversaries such as Iran—which is reportedly set to buy the J-10C as well as the less advanced FC-1 Xiaolong fighter aircraft, paying via oil and natural gas exchange—it has expanded to essentially every U.S. ally in the region except Israel. 

This growth has succeeded even as the U.S. continues to serve as the security guarantor of those states, and despite efforts by multiple U.S. administrations to limit it. For instance, while U.S. forces have become more and more embroiled in efforts to defend energy shipments from the Persian Gulf, culminating with the strikes on Houthi drone and missile targets this last week, Saudi Arabia is reportedly in talks to purchase the Sky Saker FX80 and CR500 vertical take-off and landing drones, Cruise Dragon 5 and 10 loitering munitions, and the HQ-17AE short-range air defense system. And while Egypt has received more than $50 billion in military aid from the U.S. since 1978, including $1.3 billion in the last year, it is reportedly in negotiations to buy China’s J-10C multirole fighter. 

As with U.S. arms sales, Beijing seeks not just profit via arms transfers, but to expand its presence and partnerships. In Saudi Arabia, China has worked to weave itself into Mohammed bin Salman’s national industrialization goals, including providing Chinese designed missiles for the Saqr drone, as well as reports of potential manufacture of the JF-17 inside Saudi Arabia. And the Falcon Shield 2023 joint exercise pointedly derived its name from the Hongdu L-15 Falcon, the PLA Air Force light combat and training aircraft purchased by the UAE in February. 

Each of these prongs expands China’s presence and influence in the region. According to China’s state media, the UAE and China are likely to conduct further, more wide-ranging exercises in the future, deepening ties between the two countries and further entrenching China and Chinese interests in the region. Military experts in China went further,  describing how via the exercises, the two militaries can “draw on each other’s strengths,” with official media reporting that the Emirati pilots would bring “rich practical experience…conducive to the common progress of both parties.” Much of this “experience” originally came via the Emiratis' years of joint training and exercises with the U.S. Air Force. 

Kevin Nguyen is a junior Chinese language analyst at BluePath Labs, currently studying for his Master's in Chinese Language and Culture.

Peter Singer is Senior Fellow at New America, Professor at Arizona State University, and Managing Partner of Useful Fiction LLC.