Embassies not People: China's Middle East Virus Outreach

Published May 27th, 2020 - 05:54 GMT
Asian tourists in Istanbul wear face masks /AFP
Asian tourists in Istanbul wear face masks /AFP

Early in April, Egyptian lawyer Mohamed Talaat threatened legal action against the Chinese government. Mr Talaat called on China to pay $10 trillion due to damages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in Egypt, echoing US president Donald Trump’s accusations that the virus was a ‘biological weapon developed in a Chinese lab’.

Though publicity raising judicial stunts like Mr Talaat’s are not rare in Egypt, his gesture struck a chord as hundreds of social media users rushed to share his demands. This week, two Ankara based lawyers filed a similar lawsuit, alleging that China hid data from the WHO and was responsible for bringing Turkey’s economy to the brink of bankruptcy.

These two incidents fit into a wider pattern of popular grievances against China in the Middle East and North Africa. In Jordan, a Korean worker was beaten and mocked due to his ‘Chinese’ appearance in mid-April, an Uber driver was filmed forcibly removing a Chinese passenger in Cairo’s Maadi district on suspicion of having the virus, and China’s growing regional expatriate community complains of targeted harassment and fear mongering from Marrakech to Manama. 

In Jordan, a Korean worker was beaten and mocked due to his ‘Chinese’ appearance in mid-April

Popular anxieties present political leaders in the region with the temptation to follow in America’s footsteps and blame China for the outbreak, particularly as already dire economic prospects continue to worsen. Al Bawaba has long documented China’s increased prominence as a regional player in the Middle East and North Africa. Since 2016, China has been the largest source of Foreign Direct Investment in the region, has inked Belt and Road initiatives with 21 MENA countries and emerged as the largest trading partner of 11.

But with increased integration has come increased dependence on China’s economic fortune. China’s economic slowdown and its global flow on effects are already wreaking havoc in the Middle East and North Africa. Decreases in oil demand look set to generate enormous deficits in the region’s hydrocarbon producers and bring political pressure to bear in authoritarian states.

Since 2016, China has been the largest source of Foreign Direct Investment in the region, has inked Belt and Road initiatives with 21 MENA countries and emerged as the largest trading partner of 11.

The closing off of labour markets in the Gulf to foreign workers will cause acute financial stress in North Africa and the Levant. Unemployment in the region, already at double the world’s average will skyrocket as small and medium enterprises shutter their doors and state’s cut back on welfare and employment programs.

But to take the attitude of policymakers in China and blame China would prove a significant mistake. Putting aside the veracity of claims about the virus’s origins and China’s handling of the crisis, regional leaders are aware of the pitfalls of criticising a critical economic partner.

They need only look to other global precedents to confirm this wariness: Australian government calls to investigate the origins of COVID19 have been met with firm words from Chinese diplomats and even firmer economic actions with Beijing moving to impose an 80% tariff on barley imports from the country for the next five years. As Roie Yellinek, a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Washington based think tank notes, ‘Most of the MENA’s countries leadership have no reason to level accusations against China because they need China’s support for fighting the pandemic’.

Australian government calls to investigate the origins of COVID19 have been met with firm words from Chinese diplomats and even firmer economic actions with Beijing moving to impose an 80% tariff on barley imports from the country for the next five years

As the virus has spread throughout the region and the rest of the world, China has conducted a significant diplomatic offensive, publicising efforts to provide 120 countries and four international organisations with surgical masks, respirators and test kits, noting the philanthropic efforts of Chines business magnate Jack Ma in donating medical supplies to almost 100 countries, and positioning itself as a defender of multi-lateral institutions such as the World Health Organisation.

In the MENA region, China has donated 100,000 face masks to Oman’s Ministry of Health, sent essential supplies to Egypt, Lebanon and Syria and dispatched medical teams to Iran and Iraq. To counter what they perceive as an American backed disinformation campaign over the spread of the virus, Chinese authorities have engaged in information warfare of their own. Chinese officials have rushed to publish a book, ‘The Great War Epidemic’, released in 5 languages including Arabic which speaks of President Xi’s ‘feeling for the people of the world’ and ‘outlines China’s outstanding response to the virus’.

Xinhua, China’s official state-run press agency, has circulated in its Arabic broadcasts, conspiracies that the virus originated in the United States late last year. China’s strategy of deflecting attention has also proved popular in certain quarters in the MENA region. The temptations of the blame game have led Iran’s government, which initially aired frustration towards China’s response to blame ‘Zionists’ for the virus’s outbreak, while popular Shi’a cleric Muqtada al Sadr blames the virus on permissive attitudes towards homosexuality and same sex marriage.’

The temptations of the blame game have led Iran’s government, which initially aired frustration towards China’s response to blame ‘Zionists’ for the virus’s outbreak

China’s diplomatic efforts may be a chance to accentuate the country’s soft power push. As Mr Yellinek notes, ‘We expect to see a lot of Chinese soft power pipelines extended towards the MENA region’ in the near future to shore up support.

But while such a strategy may avert criticism from regional partners, re-establishing trust between the region’s people and China may prove more difficult. Mr Yellinek observes that a division exists between popular and elite proclamations on China: ‘the situation is different for the regions people. They feel like China has caused a huge problem for the world but is not going to pay for it’. While Turkey’s President Erdogan praises ‘the heroic effort of the Chinese people’ and lauds China as a ‘model for the world’ in its containment effort, citizens prove significantly more unsure.

While Turkey’s President Erdogan praises ‘the heroic effort of the Chinese people’ and lauds China as a ‘model for the world’ in its containment effort, citizens prove significantly more unsure.

Where Moroccan King Mohammed VI thanks China for is medical assistance, social media users blame Chinese tourists and workers for spreading the infection. Though China’s power in the Middle East is built predominantly of asphalt, silicon and concrete, worsening relations with the region’s people could prove an important setback in a quest to consolidate deeper, long-term alliances.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


© 2000 - 2020 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

You may also like