On July 15, 2022, Air Force One landed on the baking tarmac in Jeddah. Despite campaign promises to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah,” President Biden, spurred by high oil prices, came to the Kingdom on bended knee to plead for a production hike. Forgoing the customary handshake, the President fist-bumped his host, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Covid-19 protocol aside, it was a terse greeting, suggesting the recent estrangement of two formerly close allies. Soon after, bin Salman rolled out the red carpet for Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two shook hands and hailed a “new era of cooperation.” The contrast was stark and the message clear: The United States no longer calls the shots in the Gulf.
In March 2023, a joint communiqué out of Beijing stunned the world: Saudi Arabia would restore diplomatic ties with its archrival, Iran, in a groundbreaking deal brokered by China. The announcement made heads spin in US foreign policy circles. “Saudi Arabia and Iran breaking bread is something I didn’t know I would live to see,” said veteran journalist and Brown University professor Stephen Kinzer. For the first time, China has emerged as a power broker in the Middle East, leveraging economic diplomacy and playing an active role in conflict mediation. With the United States downsizing its military footprint in the region, a paradigm shift is underway. It is now time for the United States to rethink its approach to Middle East policy, learning from past mistakes to respond to the new multipolarity.
In the new contest for influence in the Middle East, China holds certain advantages. As of 2019, the United States had between 60,000 and 80,000 troops stationed at over 30 bases in the region; China has none. This commitment to “non-interference” makes China a nimbler, more trustworthy partner in the eyes of Middle Eastern leaders. Given the strained US relationship with Iran and its history of support for Saudi Arabia, it cannot play the traditionally neutral role of a mediator. China—as one of the sole trading partners of the Iranian regime and an investor in the Saudi energy sector—does not pick sides. China’s trade with the Middle East has exploded in the past few years, rising from $180 billion in 2019 to $258 billion in 2021. Through its transactional economic diplomacy, China has managed to win over US allies and enemies alike, securing a seat at the negotiating table.
Certain contradictions within American foreign policy have paved the way for China’s ascendancy. For some decades, American presidents have proclaimed a ‘values-based’ foreign policy, providing aid packages to liberal-purporting countries and using sanctions to isolate “rogue states.” While such moralism may work as a rallying call in Central and Eastern Europe, it rings hollow in the Middle East. The United States must recognize that the Western conception of human rights, civil liberty, and political pluralism is not shared by all cultures. Moreover, the United States is inconsistent in its application of these values. Failed nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate the danger of such assumptions: Soon after America’s “humanitarian” intervention against Saddam Hussein in 2003, anti-American sentiment in the Middle East surged in response to its disruption of Iraqi society. One Brookings study reported that 80 to 90 percent of surveyees in six Arab countries held an unfavorable view of the United States.
China does not preach the same moralizing rhetoric. As a revisionist superpower, Xi’s China is regarded with growing alarm in the West as a threat to democratic values globally. Moreover, China’s anti-Americanism has found ready support in the Middle East, particularly in Iran. Buckling under Western sanctions, Iran has become increasingly reliant on Chinese companies for its statecraft and economy. Tech giants such as Tiandy Technologies (天地伟业), ZTE (中兴), and Huawei, which assisted with the repression of ethnic minorities and the general populace in China, have become instrumental to the Shia regime’s suppression of pro-democratic youth movements. The 2021 Iran-China 25-year Cooperation Program plans to raise Chinese investment in Iran from $5 billion in 2020 to $400 billion over future decades in exchange for oil exports.
Faced with a rising China, the United States cannot maintain its position in the Middle East through a values-based rationality. With his ‘pivot east,’ President Obama shifted priorities from countering terrorism in the Middle East to preserving a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific.’ America’s rushed 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan confirmed the Gulf states’ suspicion that its commitment to the broader region was wavering. As such, American allies in the Middle East find themselves increasingly isolated and are consequently exploring new alternatives for economic growth. China is now Saudi Arabia’s largest crude oil and petrochemical export destination, and Saudi Arabia is following Iran’s decision to replace dollars with renminbi for settlement. These developments put further strain on an uneasy alliance.
The Saudi-American relationship can be distilled to one core exchange: oil for security. Under the Trump administration, the Saudis were forced to reconsider their dependence on American security guarantees. Citing the America First doctrine, former President Trump refused to respond in 2019 when Iranian-backed Yemeni Houthi insurgents launched drone strikes on Saudi oil facilities. The collapse of the Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) convinced Riyadh that the United States has no clear security framework for the Gulf. Since then, Saudi Arabia has adopted a more pragmatic and gregarious foreign policy, cooperating with traditional enemies like Israel and Iran to ensure its own security and leaning increasingly on Xi as an economic patron. This is perceived as a betrayal by Washington, but it is an entirely rational choice from the Saudi perspective.
“Our traditional approach to the Middle East has been to divide the countries in that region between our friends and our enemies,” said Kinzer, who finds that strategy oversimplistic. In the new competition with China, the United States must not force Middle Eastern countries to pick sides. The alienation of “pariah” states like Iran can only push enemies to unite, creating a soft balancing act against the United States. Sino-American competition in the Middle East is no zero-sumgame; China has neither the will nor the capability to replace the United States as the dominant military power. Moreover, if China can play a positive role in conflict mediation, the United States will benefit; a more stable Middle East means more reliable supply chains and greater energy output. To regain its role in the region, the United States must abandon its Manichean vision of conflict in the Middle East.