The Middle East's New Sweetheart: How China is Edging out World Superpowers

The Middle East is turning to China for future economic prosperity. Rami Khoury/Albawaba
The Middle East is turning to China for future economic prosperity. Rami Khoury/Albawaba
The Middle East's New Sweetheart: How China is Edging out World Superpowers
Published October 2nd, 2019 - 11:59 GMT
Early in 2017, children in the Gulf states tuned in to the premiere of a novel animation series.

Kong Xiaoxi and Hakim, a 26-episode cartoon series, was co-produced in China and Saudi Arabia and broadcast on public television in both countries.

It tells the story of Hakim, a Saudi Arabian teenager working in his family’s restaurant. Hakim’s family restaurant faces stiff competition from a Western backed rival, the Raman restaurant.

Yet before Hakim loses hope in the prospects of the survival of his family restaurant, he meets Kong Xiaoxi, a Chinese teenager who offers his help. Kong helps Hakim’s family, using traditional Chinese cooking methods, to turn the restaurant around and help beat its rival.

Designed to promote cross-cultural awareness, Kong teaches Hakim traditional martial arts from China, whilst Hakim teaches Kong about life in Saudi Arabia.

Though intended for an audience yet to reach political maturity, Kong Xiaoxi and Hakim provides powerful symbolic insights into the expanding role China plays in the Middle East.

It indicates that China sees itself in the region as an agent of assistance, willing to aid regional powers to reach their potential rather than keeping them weak and divided. It suggests a new period of cultural engagement between long detached world regions.

where once people and politics in the Middle East looked West for inspiration and support, in recent years they have increasingly shifted their gaze eastwards.

Most importantly, it shows that China is seeking to turn its enormous financial investments, increasing diplomatic role and close relations with partners in the region into a deeper form of cultural influence which resonates not with political and economic elites but everyday citizens of the region.

It attests to perhaps the most important development in Middle Eastern international affairs this century - where once people and politics in the Middle East looked West for inspiration and support, in recent years they have increasingly shifted their gaze eastwards.

In the so-called ‘Chinse century’, commentators ought to focus on the Middle East as a key theatre for the realisation of China’s increasing global ambitions.

China’s increased role in the Middle East and North Africa has been the product of the opportunism of Chinese firms and officials and the pro-active choices of regional powers, but it also relates closely to the choices of other global powers. Most importantly, China has capitalised on the relative decline of American power in a region where the United States once reigned supreme.

As Guy Burton, a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics notes, “externally the period of US hegemony is coming to an end. During the 1990s until 2003, the Americans were unparalleled. But that’s been withering away.”

 

The American Vacuum

America is less dependent on Middle East energy today than it once was.

The story of American decline in the Middle East is a complex one. It has occurred despite, or perhaps because of America’s expansive military presence.

After decades of regional entanglement, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials and the American electorate have grown weary of maintaining an over-sized presence in what has proved, in terms of security and stability, an unforgiving region.

Yet longer term shifts are also at play. Dr Burton notes that the global financial crisis knocked America economically, causing a more generalised retrenchment of overseas endeavours.

Hasan al-Hasan, a doctoral researcher at King’s College London notes that America’s role in the region has also resulted from a changed international energy regime.

America’s cosy relations with the Gulf States in particular had been built on demand for oil to fuel America’s rapid economic expansion in the post-war era. Yet as Hasan notes “the introduction of tight oil and shale gas, especially in North America, has transformed the global oil and gas markets.”

Americans grew tired of foreign adventurism and focused on combating a tough economic situation at home.

America has proven far less dependent on energy security in the Middle East than was the case even one decade ago.

Americans grew tired of foreign adventurism and focused on combating a tough economic situation at home and during the presidency of Barack Obama, the American government pursued a policy of pragmatic realism in the Middle East.

A process of managed decline occurred as America signalled that it was no longer willing to commit to large scale military operation or provide blank cheque support for regional partners. High profile moves such as the negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal signalled that America preferred maintaining an arms-length relation with Middle Eastern affairs based on diplomacy and mediation rather than an active on the ground presence.

Though President Trump has made issues related to Israel and Palestine and placing pressure on Iran central to his foreign policy agenda, his regional ambitions are decidedly modest.

The cultivation of ever closer relations with Israel at the expense of ties with Arab partners have frustrated many and Mr Trump’s avowed commitment to put America’s domestic interests above regional and global stability has provided space for other actors to fill the large vacuum resultant from American decline.

Yet those actors which had long played a supportive or adversarial role in relation to American interests in the region lack the interests or resources to increase their own involvement.

 

Where Other Actors Have Failed

Other countries like Russia and EU states aren't as well positioned as China.

Though Russia has aimed to secure short term benefits in the region by backing the Assad regime in Syria, providing material support to struggling regimes in the Maghreb and the Horn of Africa, and pushing for regional stability to prevent the spread of international terrorism to its borders, it is not financially powerful enough to fill the American vacuum.

The Middle East does not fit centrally with Russia’s security agenda, focused as it is on Eastern Europe and East Asia, nor does Russia, one of the world’s largest energy producers, retain a significant material interest in regional reconstruction or the cultivation of financial ties to hydrocarbon rich states.

The European Union has also abrogated its once significant regional role.

Whilst outward Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) flows into the Middle East and, in particular, North Africa, remain significant, the EU lacks the military might or political support to play a decisive role in the region’s future.

As Dr Burton notes, much of this “has to do with them focusing on getting their own house in order” which largely concerns managing “the populist rise and the response to migration and refugees.”

Rather than developing pro-active strategies to stem the flow of migration from North Africa and the Levant, they have sought management on the cheap - “they’ve effectively tried to pay Turkey off to manage that problem for them.”

Whilst the European Neighbourhood Policy once funnelled significant investments into the region, since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, such resources have not proved as forthcoming.

Regional powers looking further afield for political support, military hardware and financial assistance are looking East rather than West.

To some extent, a decline of traditional great powers in the Middle East has led regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran to exert increasingly autonomous influence over regional affairs.

As Mehran Kamrava, a Professor at Georgetown University notes, all three states, have turned to bold foreign policy manoeuvres including support for regional proxies, attempts to expand cultural and ideological influence regionally, and, in some cases, direct foreign military adventurism to assert their leadership over the region.

Yet none of these states, in its own right, is particularly powerful. All remain reliant on international support, have to face their own domestic economic travails, and have struggled to cultivate regional support for their agendas.

Asserting a more direct military role would require a far higher degree of international quiescence than is currently forthcoming and depends on the importation of military technology and expertise from abroad.

This time, regional powers looking further afield for political support, military hardware and financial assistance are looking East rather than West.

Whether as an independent actor, or a strategic ally, China has come to the fore as the ally of choice for many Middle Eastern states, even those which have traditionally pledged allegiance to the United States.

 

A Rising China

China's mission to become a global force is materialising today.

In the early 19th century, writing on China, the French general Napoleon Bonaparte noted, “let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.”

Two centuries on, his comments have appeared prophetic.

Whilst China struggled under the weight of foreign control and revolution in the early 20th century, and isolation and chaos in its middle decades, since the 1970s, it has become a power to be reckoned with on the global stage.

Following the Communist seizure of power in 1949, China positioned itself as a moral and political leader of the Third World under Chairman Mao.

Despite early hopes to realise these ambitions, the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution at home and the Sino-Soviet split abroad left the People’s Republic diplomatically isolated for much of its early history.

Coming in from the cold in the early 1970s, China gained admission to the United Nations and began a process of diplomatic normalisation abroad.

Domestically, China opened itself up to large scale foreign trade and investments. Thousands of industries were privatised, and public subsidies were used to promote market development.

A state once gripped by widespread economic insecurity and deprivation has emerged more unequal but far more prosperous.

Economic theorists see this as a period in which China transitioned from a form of state socialism, in which bureaucrats and officials directly controlled the country’s productive apparatus to a form of state capitalism in which a close nexus between the state and semi-autonomous business partners catalysed a centrally directed process of economic liberalisation.

The results of this policy shift were nothing short of an economic miracle: between 1989-2016, the growth rate of China’s Gross Domestic Product averaged 10% annually.

A state once gripped by widespread economic insecurity and deprivation has emerged more unequal but far more prosperous.

Yet as Chinese authorities seek to escape the much-feared middle income trap, they must turn to strategies of sustainable long-term growth and focus on becoming a key player at all levels of international trade.

Foreign expansion and the development of a well-considered geo-economic strategy is central to these efforts.

The BRI was intended to serve as a pushback against America’s much touted ‘pivot to Asia’

In 2013, Chinese officials first announced what was then called the One Belt One Road Initiative, later renamed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Originally, the BRI was intended to serve as a pushback against America’s much touted ‘pivot to Asia’- as Qiao Liang, a retired major general in the People’s Liberation Army noted, “a hedge strategy against the eastward move of the USA.”

Yet the initiative took on a life of its own. It was written into the constitution of the Chinese Communist Party in 2017 and has been seen as key to China’s future prosperity.

The project, funded by a combination of direct Chinese foreign investment and a regime of low interest loan provisions to partner states, is regarded by many as the largest infrastructure project in history. It is set to cost an estimated $2 trillion US Dollars, directly include 63 economies, and connect billions of people through road, silicon and rail.

Though only one of the BRI’s 6 pathways, the China-Central West Asia Corridor, runs directly through the Middle East, the region plays a vital role in Chinese economic development.

Sustaining China’s economic miracle is contingent on two key factors.

The first relates to securing access to a reliable flow of energy resources. Though China has emerged as a leading player in the green technology sector and hopes to achieve energy self-reliance by the end of the century, it continues to exhibit an almost insatiable appetite for hydro-carbon imports.

China is estimated by the International Energy Agency to consume a staggering 13.5 million barrels a day, a demand expected to increase by 57% by 2040.

Secondly, as China attempts to escape the middle-income trap, it must continue to expand production at home whilst securing investment prospects and market opportunities abroad. The Middle East and North Africa offers opportunities consistent with both of these needs.

 

Breaking into Trade

Chinese investments go beyond oil and gas.

By 2004, China had began making inroads in the region. In that year, former Chinese president Hu Jintao visited Egypt to discuss the establishment of the China Arab States Cooperation Forum with Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League.

This forum hoped to develop closer relations between East and West Asia without forming dependent alliances and has since proliferated a range of influential sub-groups including the Energy Cooperation Conference, the Entrepreneurs Conferences and Investment Seminar, and the Internet Cooperation Conference.

A deepening of commercial and diplomatic ties has been central to this project. By 2016, China had signalled in its first Arab policy paper, a desire to further bind the region to its economic plans.

China’s initial forays in the Middle East were built on a requirement for supplies of oil and gas. China is now the top petroleum export destination for Iran, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

In fact 52% of China’s hydrocarbon imports come from the Middle East and nearly a third of Chinese petroleum imports from the region come from Saudi Arabia. This percentage continues to increase as US sanctions on Iran’s oil industry begin to bite. Qatar provides China with more than 20% of its Liquid Natural Gas Imports.

In fact 52% of China’s hydrocarbon imports come from the Middle East and nearly a third of Chinese petroleum imports from the region come from Saudi Arabia. This percentage continues to increase as US sanctions on Iran’s oil industry begin to bite. Qatar provides China with more than 20% of its Liquid Natural Gas Imports.

Yet the energy industry has also been a tool for the expansion of Chinese investment regionally. Chinese firms have financed energy exploration and extraction in Iran and the UAE.

China’s Petroleum Engineering and Construction Corporation is playing a key role in rebuilding Iraq’s Rumelia oil field and many Saudi officials see a private share sale to a Chinese company as a viable and more palatable alternative to an Initial Public Offering of Aramco, the Kingdom’s petroleum giant.

China has also invested significantly in down-stream oil capacity. It has emerged as the world’s second largest refiner of crude oil and refines 14.5 million barrels per day, securing lucrative deals to build refineries throughout the Gulf and in China with regional partners.

Yet oil and gas do not explain Chinese staying power in the region.

Chinese authorities also see an increasing role in the Middle East and North Africa as a way to expand markets for Chinese goods and develop a stake in crucial nodes of the global trade network.

In 2008, 1% of Chinese FDI was earmarked for the Middle East and North Africa. By 2016, China had become the largest foreign investor in the region, holding one third of the Middle East’s entire FDI stock according to the Arab Investment and Export Credit Guarantee Corporation.

Now 16 Middle Eastern states are integrated into the BRI and many have inked high profile investment deals with Chinese state-owned enterprises and private companies.

President Xi’s hopes to ‘break the bottleneck in Asian connectivity’ is slowly being realised.

A core element of the BRI is the so-called ‘Maritime Silk Road Project’, an ambitious venture to connect the Chinese mainland with a string of Chinese operated ports, particularly in the Indian Ocean.

East Africa has been key to efforts in this regard, but China hopes to secure a presence on both sides of the Gulf of Aden as well as more presence in the Suez Area and on the Mediterranean.

Maritime trade is of particular importance for the expansion of Chinese economic influence- 90% of Chinese exports travel by sea.

Chinese enterprises have secured deals to manage important maritime real estate in the Middle East.

Chinese companies have been in negotiation over building a deep-water container port at El Hamdania in Algeria, have won contracts for an extension of the port of Doha in Qatar and been involved in developing the capacity of the UAE’s two leading ports, Jebel Ali in Dubai and the Khalifa Port in Abu Dhabi.

The UAE has emerged as a key hub for Chinese international trade- approximately 60% of Chinese goods destined for Europe, Africa and the Middle East pass through the country.

Though Chinese firms have sought to assist Egyptian authorities in the establishment of a new Suez Canal Economic Zone, China has logistical ambitions to lessen dependence on strategic bottlenecks like Suez altogether.

China hopes to build a so-called ‘Red-Med Railway’ connecting Eliat on Israel’s Red Sea Coast with the Mediterranean port of Ashdod. Such a development would create an important alternate route for the flow of international trade and reduce Chinese dependence on maritime transport.

China has already collaborated on the development of a direct freight railway from Zhejiang on China’s eastern seaboard to Tehran, cutting transportation times by 30 days compared to shipping.

President Xi’s hopes to ‘break the bottleneck in Asian connectivity’ is slowly being realised.

Yet as a recent report by Chatham House, a UK think-tank, notes, China’s infrastructural presence may be defined less by steel and bitumen and more by silicon.

China is a leader in AI, nano-tech, cloud computing and more.

It is in the field of digital development that China appears most ambitious.

Chinese firms currently operate or co-own 9 submarine data cables serving the region.

The UAE and Chinese tech giants Huawei and China Telecom are working on joint projects in 5G telecommunications, whilst China’s aims to develop an alternative navigation system to America’s GPS has been met with interest in the region.

BeiDou, a company responsible for the so-called BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, opened its first overseas Centre for Excellence in Tunisia in April 2018.

The UAE and Chinese tech giants Huawei and China Telecom are working on joint projects in 5G telecommunications, whilst China’s aims to develop an alternative navigation system to America’s GPS has been met with interest in the region.

Huawei has agreed to help establish a broadband network in Syria as it seeks to reconstruct itself after nearly a decade of conflict.

Chinese firms, which lead the world in research and development funding in emerging fields of technological advancement including artificial intelligence, nano-technology and cloud computing have linked with regional partners to carry out more ambitious projects.

China’s Communication Construction Company and Road and Bridge Corporation have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Tangier Tech Development Company to build Tangier Tech City, a smart city powered by Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things.

Kuwait’s Silk City megaproject hopes to benefit from a similar extension of China’s largesse.

Dr Jonathan Hillman, a Fellow at the Washington based Centre for Strategic and International Studies notes, “as China’s telecommunications networks expand, it gains power: reducing its dependence on Western systems while gaining data that can be used for commercial and strategic purposes.”

Chinese regional investments are already generating handsome returns.

China-Gulf trade, in particular, has seen substantial growth this decade. Valued at under $10 billion in 2000, it has now topped the $125 billion mark.

Chinese firms such as Alibaba, a retail conglomerate, and Tencent, a technology company, boast impressive market shares throughout the region and 4000 Chinese companies operate in the UAE alone.

 

Leverage in the Middle East

A more neutral approach to foreign policy, although sometimes controversial, gives China an advantage.

Chinese investments have synergised well with regional plans for economic diversification embodied in ‘Vision’ development plans in the Gulf.

Regional leaders, fearful of declining returns from hydrocarbon sales, see Chinese investments in digital infrastructure as a way to facilitate their emergence as dynamic players in a 21st century global economy.

Chinese investments have proved far more forthcoming than those from traditional international allies.

Crucially, they come with fewer strings attached.

As General Ahmed Zaki Abdeen, a former Egyptian government minister responsible for the development of his country’s new Beijing backed administrative capital, aptly warns Western governments and corporations: “stop talking to us about human rights. Come and do business with us. The Chinese are coming- they are seeking win-win situations.”

What is immediately striking about China’s expanding economic and diplomatic involvement in the region is its enormous scope.

China cites a belief in the power of economic linkages and development to solve regional instability.

Unlike previous international actors, China has very consciously sought a position of political neutrality in the region: it meets with Israeli cabinet ministers and leaders of the Palestinian National Authority; Saudi oil executives and commanders in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; tech entrepreneurs from the UAE and Qatari University directors.

Indeed, China has signed Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships, its highest level of diplomatic recognition with a range of regional adversaries.

As Hasan al-Hasan notes, a ‘premise of de-hyphenation’ dictates China’s foreign policy: dealing with two or more adversaries on a case by case, independent basis.

China officially promotes a policy that claims to support national sovereignty, arguing that political tensions ought to be solved at home rather than internationalised.

This explains China’s oft-criticised stance on the Assad regime in Syria.

Whilst China officially condemns atrocities committed in the country since its descent into civil war in 2011, unlike other international actors it does not firmly commit support to Mr Assad or his domestic foes, seeing the issue as one to be “solved by the Syrian people.”

When pressed to reveal the key planks of its foreign policy, China cites a belief in the power of economic linkages and development to solve regional instability and stagnation, a view often shared by regional actors.

China’s ability to curry favour with a range of regional powers has set alarm bells ringing in Washington.

Though China’s diplomatic balancing act may prove more difficult to sustain as relations between the Gulf States and Iran deteriorate, and as Israel attempts to assert a more aggressive foreign policy stance, for now, China’s official neutrality appears relatively stable.

China’s ability to curry favour with a range of regional powers has set alarm bells ringing in Washington.

Particularly concerning are China’s efforts to ingratiate itself with traditionally staunch US allies. As Guy Burton notes, “the problem starts when the search for economic opportunities is challenged by existing partners.”

A 25-year agreement to operate Israel’s Haifa port, secured by China’s Shanghai International Port Group has proven especially controversial.

Israeli ports like Haifa are seen as vital to US interests in the Mediterranean- the US 6th Fleet uses Haifa as a routine replenishment spot, as does Israel’s submarine fleet.

The increasing involvement of Huawei in Israel’s thriving tech sector has provoked similar consternation.

China's military presence in the Middle East is still minimal for now.

It remains to be seen whether China’s increasing economic and strategic influence in the region will be converted into a more significant presence of Chinese officials, particularly military forces in the region.

A 2016 Chinese Defence White Paper noted “China will never seek hegemony or engage in military expansion,” but the People’s Liberation Army has already shown a penchant for protecting Chinese interests in the region.

In 2011 in Libya and 2015 in Yemen, Chinese forces evacuated expatriates in those countries.

China has provided some military and strategic assistance to Syrian security services, largely due to domestic security concerns.

An estimated 5000 Uighur Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province have taken up arms alongside the Turkestan Islamic Party, a militant group which operates in Western China and Central Asia. They are currently fighting alongside Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib province.

In addition, hundreds more are thought to have been recruited by Islamic State.

Though China’s military footprint is far lighter than that of the US, Chinese weaponry certainly plays an important role in regional conflict.

Frank Slijper, an arms trade specialist at Pax for Peace, a Dutch NGO, notes Gulf States have moved to significantly increase their importation of Chinese arms, in particular for “weapons the US doesn’t want to sell them for strategic reasons such as armed drones.”

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China has become the largest exporter of unmanned combat aerial vehicles in the region.

China argues that its international military operations are minimal because it is a different kind of international actor- one which places a premium on negotiation and diplomacy over armed conflict.

Yet as lucrative contracts expand, populations migrate, and relations deepen, the People’s Liberation Army may find itself drawn into a more active role.

 

Cultural Exchange

Chinese books at a Dubai bookstore. 

Western pundits have tended to argue that while China’s economic influence has spread globally, it lacks forms of cultural capital with which to truly exert its hegemonic power.

Chinese culture does remain unfamiliar in most of the Middle East and North Africa. This fact may inadvertently come with significant benefits.

As Jonathan Fulton, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi notes, China has less historical baggage in the region, making it seem a more trustworthy partner than ex-colonial powers and the United States.

Indeed, as Dr Burton notes, China often draws rhetorically on narratives of historical similarity, describing itself and its partners as victims of past Western colonialism and imperialism.

However, China has recently stepped up campaigns to spread the country’s overseas cultural influence.

China has established 17 ‘Confucius Institutes’, similar to European institutions such as Alliance Française and the British Council, in the Middle East and North Africa to spread Chinese language and culture in the region.

China’s state-owned news agency, Xinhua, has slowly developed into an international service. It created a news office in Cairo and now publishes in Cairo, whilst China Global Television Network, China’s state television network has broadcast in Arabic since 2009.

Tourism from China has significantly expanded regionally. The United Nation’s World Tourism Organisation noted a 6-fold increase in Chinese residents visiting Israel between 2012-2017.

Gulf monarchies are forecasting an 80% increase in Chinese visitors between 2019-2022 and the UAE expects more than 1.5 million Chinese tourists to visit this year.

About 500,000 Chinese expatriates now call the Gulf States home.

Learning from previous international powers, China has been especially keen to expand its international outreach in the sphere of education.

In 2018, Peking University hosted its first China-Middle East Youth dialogue to enhance cross-cultural interactions between youth leaders.

Where Arab youth once looked to America and Europe for opportunities, they may be shifting their horizons eastwards, put off by high fees and stringent visa requirements in the West.

Chinese universities have begun to offer curriculums in Middle Eastern Languages and the Chinese Scholarship Council sponsors thousands of students from the Middle East to study in China.

According to the Middle East Institute, a Washington based think-tank, the number of Arab students studying in Chinese universities and Chinese students studying at Arab universities increased by 26% and 21% respectively from 2004-2016.

Where Arab youth once looked to America and Europe for opportunities, they may be shifting their horizons eastwards, put off by high fees and stringent visa requirements in the West and encouraged by available options in China.

Most ambitiously, China has attempted to directly develop its own universities.

China’s flagship regional institution, the Egyptian Chinese University opened its doors in 2016 and has educated more than 2500 Egyptians.

Chinese authorities hope to establish a second regional institute, the China-Jordan University during the next decade.

Religion has proven the most difficult issue for China to navigate regionally, particularly given its own much publicised mistreatment of its own 20 million strong Muslim population.

Yet close relations between China and regional governments has won quiescence over the issue.

As Dr Burton notes, ambassadors from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE signed an open letter of support for China’s nefarious activities in Xinjiang province.

Whilst Turkey criticised China’s actions, it did so in a very muted tone, a far cry from its denunciation of crack downs on rioting in Xinjiang in 2009 as ‘cultural genocide’.

Fittingly, Hajj pilgrims arriving in Jeddah are highly likely to continue their travels to Mecca and Medina on a $1.8 billion Chinese built railway linking the holy cities with the Saudi coast.

Even over the most difficult issue of cultural tension between China and its Middle Eastern partners, strong strategic relations have mitigated incentives for official scrutiny.

 

The Other Side of Influence

Local enterprises may face tough competition from Chinese goods flooding the market. 

China’s influence in the Middle East presents a mixed bag of opportunities and challenges for a volatile region.

Some aspects of China’s expanding influence in the region should be welcomed.

Money for infrastructure projects is sorely needed and China is right in noting that development and economic growth is the key to a more stable and secure region.

Yet whilst a RAND corporation described China as a ‘weary dragon’ in relation to the Middle East in 2016, it is now the region’s people who should be weary of Chinese intentions.

In the first instance, as China becomes more embroiled in the region, like other powers it may turn to more overt displays of hard power to protect its interests. This would risk renewed international conflict in a region finding its feet after decades of conflict.

Secondly, though Chinese investment should be cautiously welcomed where it genuinely empowers local populations, it may stifle the diversification opportunities it is purports to enable.

Local enterprises may struggle to compete in their home markets under the weight of competition by powerful Chinese state backed enterprises.

Though infrastructure projects may stimulate economic growth and opportunity, the encroachment of Chinese companies able to flood markets with cheap goods may harm emerging players in a diversifying regional economy.

Thirdly, many raise concerns about China’s financial relationship with BRI countries.

Though loans have low interest attached, many regional autocrats, keen for a quick fix to long term developmental problems have eyes bigger than their pockets.

Debt-trap diplomacy ought to provoke fears among weaker economies in the region. Significant debts owed to China may be used as leverage for China to extract more favourable financial terms from partner states.

Chinese technological assistance to autocratic regimes may empower their capacities for surveillance and coercion.

Finally, technological development should be treated with a high level of scrutiny.

In January 2018, Le Monde Afrique, a news agency, revealed that the Chinese built African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, had experienced a significant data breach.

A state-of-the-art IT system provided by Huawei had been compromised. For 5 years, all data from African Union servers was transferred daily to Shanghai.

Many states are already taking a stance stance against companies like Huawei, accused of intellectual property violations and data privacy breaches.

Last year, the government of Australia banned equipment suppliers “likely to be subject to extrajudicial directions from a foreign government.”

More importantly, Chinese technological assistance to autocratic regimes may empower their capacities for surveillance and coercion.

Protesters in Hong Kong identified the pervasive and pernicious influence of smart city technologies, used to monitor activists and control their movements.

The developments of similar capabilities in the Arab world should be a concern for regional citizens and the international community alike.

China’s international rise has not left the Middle East and North Africa behind.

An expansion of economic opportunities, infrastructural development, and cultural exchange should be welcomed by states attempting to diversify and reconstruct.

Yet Middle Eastern peoples know all too well the dangers presented by strangers bearing gifts.

They would do well to adopt a cautious scepticism to the latest international actor to make inroads in their region.


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