Hudson Institute Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East

China in the Middle East | December 16, 2022

china in the middle east

This report first appeared as a part of Hudson's China in the Middle East newsletter series. To subscribe, click here.

Xi Jinping in Saudi Arabia

China-Arab Summit

“If America doesn’t reverse its course soon, the gap that Xi has created by leveraging the Iranian threat will continue to widen, empowering China and leaving America out in the cold,” warned Michael Doran and Can Kasapoğlu in their recent piece “Overmatch” in Tablet. As if to prove their prediction correct, the Saudis received Chinese President Xi Jinping last week. His three-day visit included not one but three summit meetings: a Saudi Arabia-China summit attended by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; a Gulf Cooperation Council-China summit; and an Arab-China summit.

The Saudis, clearly, were eager to present themselves to Xi as China’s gateway to the Arab world, if not the entire Middle East. The warmth that they exhibited was noteworthy, even offering Xi an honorary doctoral degree in management from King Saud University. The contrast with their reception of President Joe Biden in July was noteworthy.

But the visit generated little soul-searching in the United States. The report in the New York Times showcased the ability of the American elite to avoid consideration of the key questions raised by the visit. While the article did admit that Xi is competing for influence with Biden, it claimed that the Chinese leader, emerging from “semi-isolation,” was “returning to the global stage to repair China’s position and catch up to the United States.”

But from the perspective of Middle Eastern capitals, China appears to be the rising power that is benefitting most from American decline. Biden entered office with the express intention of turning the Saudi crown prince into “a pariah.” His visit in July failed to achieve its stated goals. By contrast, Xi’s visit was a triumph.

All of this was glossed over in the New York Times report, which omitted entirely the most important word of all: Iran. America’s failure to help the allies defend themselves against Iran’s aggression is the factor driving them hardest to China. As every graduate of a 12-step program can attest, the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem. If you can’t even bring yourself to name the problem, your recovery has not begun.

China-GCC Summit

During the GCC summit—which included meetings with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—President Xi said that China would establish a nuclear security center with the Gulf, focusing on the peaceful civilian use of nuclear power. Discussions also covered a potential joint investment council, a free-trade agreement, and the establishment of a center for moon and deep space exploration. Older readers will remember that President Barack Obama and his fellow supporters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal, were supposed to have prevented a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. In fact, it was the starting pistol for the race, which now involves China, the greatest geostrategic competitor the United States has known since the Cold War.

Bilateral Meetings

President Xi held one-on-one meetings with King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa; Prime Minister of Algeria Ayman Benabderrahmane; President of Egypt Abdel Fattah Al Sisi; Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; the chairman of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan; Crown Prince of Kuwait Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al-Sabah; Prime Minister of Iraq Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani; Prime Minister of Lebanon Najib Mikati; Deputy Prime Minister for the Council of Ministers of Oman Sayyid Fahd bin Mahmoud Al Said; and President of Tunisia Kais Saied.

In each of the meetings, Xi expressed support for national sovereignty and security and thanked his interlocutors, in turn, for supporting China’s “core interest,” namely the One-China policy and Beijing’s stances on Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Xi also expressed interest in further developing relations, oftentimes discussing revenues for continued collaboration, and tying the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to the national platforms of the Middle East, such as Kuwait Vision 2035, Saudi Vision 2030, and Qatar National Vision 2030.

 Xi’s warm meetings with Arab leaders contrasted sharply with the clumsy organization of this week’s US-Africa Summit, where—as of December 2—the White House was rejecting all requests for one-on-one meetings. Some 50 leaders have been invited, and Biden didn’t have time to honor all the requests for meetings.

White House Reaction

This festival of good feelings between China and America’s allies turned the Biden administration into an impotent observer. Its comments betrayed an inability to shape the proceedings in any way. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on December 7 that the United States is “mindful of the influence that China is trying to grow around the world. The Middle East is certainly one of those regions where they want to deepen their level of influence.” State Department Counselor Derek Chollet gave a briefing in Kuwait explaining that the US is not asking countries to pick sides between Beijing and Washington, but to be “mindful” of their interactions, arguing that China “does not have an interest in building mutually beneficial partnerships.”

Saudi Arabia

The Saudis and America’s other Arab allies were clearly not listening to Chollet. On December 8, King Salman and President Xi signed a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement, elevating the Kingdom to top-tier status in China’s foreign relations. The two leaders also pledged to take turns visiting each other's country every two years. In a joint statement released at the conclusion of the Saudi Arabia-China summit, the partners called on Iran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency and respect the principles of non-proliferation.

As Xi vowed to “further synergize” China’s Belt and Road Initiative with Saudi Vision 2030, Abdulaziz bin Salman, the Saudi energy minister, revealed plans to establish regional centers for Chinese factories. During Xi’s time in the kingdom, China and Saudi Arabia also signed 34 energy and investment deals, covering green energy, infrastructure, health, and information technology.

A memorandum of understanding with Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, anticipates the establishment of cloud computing and the construction of high-tech complexes across Saudi Arabia. The embrace of Huawei amounted to an implicit yet exceptionally sharp rejection of the American advice to be “mindful” of working too closely with China. The Biden administration reportedly told the UAE that a decision to let Huawei build its 5G network would scuttle its planned purchase of the F-35 joint strike fighter, the jewel in the crown of the US Air Force. Abu Dhabi, for its part, preferred to be Huawei’s partner than become the only Arab state in possession of the F-35. The Saudi-Chinese MoU suggests that, like Abu Dhabi, Riyadh calculates that greater benefits accrue to him who chooses Beijing over Washington. When the UAE chose Huawei, the United States lost a sale worth $23 billion dollars. The amount of money that will flow from Saudi Arabia to China instead of to the United States cannot be calculated so easily, but it is undoubtedly large.


Iran interpreted the joint statement signed by China and the GCC as undermining its territorial integrity and questioning the Islamic Republic’s sovereignty over the three islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa. Iran has administered them since a naval seizure in 1971, but the UAE still claims them. There was an immediate uproar from Iran, which prompted China to reaffirm Beijing’s respect for Iran’s territorial integrity, arguing that Xi’s trip was part of a wider effort to promote peace and stability and to solve regional problems.

A smarter American policy could benefit from the tensions that China’s simultaneous courtship of Iran and its regional rivals stokes, but such a policy would require a serious commitment by the United States to contain Iran and prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Endless pursuit of the JCPOA, the current Biden policy, does not fit the bill. Instead of America’s allies sheltering under its power umbrella while Beijing builds up Iran, the Biden administration’s Quixotic pursuit of the JCPOA has put the Gulf States into a competition with Iran for influence in Beijing.

Main Developments

China’s “Police Stations” Abroad

Safeguard Defenders, a Madrid-based NGO, published Patrol and Persuade, which provides evidence of China’s establishment of at least 102 overseas police service stations in 53 countries. These stations hunt dissidents living abroad—without necessarily obeying local judicial rules. Chinese officials have touted the success of their efforts, saying that roughly 230,000 “fugitives” had been “persuaded to return” home between April 2021 and July 2022. Since Safeguard Defender’s initial report on China’s illicit repatriation tactics in January 2022, at least 12 countries have initiated investigations into the Chinese police centers within their territory.

In past years, China’s activities in this regard were believed to have been limited to authoritarian countries in places like the Middle East and Southeast Asia. However, the report claims that “Safeguard Defenders has found cases where democratic countries, for example Canada, Switzerland and the US, have cooperated secretly with Chinese law enforcement to track down and deport claimed fugitives.” China’s watchful eye is extending to all corners of the globe.

Yemen’s Call for Assistance

While Xi continued his established policy of avoiding any direct role in addressing the security challenges of the region, efforts by local actors to pull China in are increasing.

On the eve of the summit meetings in Riyadh, Najeeb Ghallab, an undersecretary in Yemen’s Information Ministry, called on China to help end Yemen’s civil war by increasing economic and humanitarian aid and assisting with peace talks. “Yemen needs China’s assistance,” he claimed. The resolution of internal unrest is in China’s interest, he continued, because revitalized Yemeni ports would aid the implementation of their Belt and Road Initiative. Ghallab also argued that Beijing could persuade Tehran to stop supporting regional proxies, including the Houthis in Yemen.

In a meeting with Rashad Mohammed Al-Alimi, the chairman of the Presidential Leadership Council of Yemen, President Xi hovered above the fray in Yemen. He reiterated China’s support for the country’s sovereignty, unity, independence, and territorial integrity. Calling for the resolution of the conflict through diplomatic negotiations, he vowed to aid the country’s reconstruction.

Israel Tech Industry

At the Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership’s (SIGNAL) annual conference, US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Multilateral Affairs and for Global China Issues Jung H. Pak encouraged Israel to take further action to guard “advanced critical technologies” against Chinese investment. Pak stated that the US “does not wish for Israel and others in the region to decouple from China,” but rather wants “to promote trade in ways that do not threaten our security and human rights values.”


During the Forty-Second Gulf Summit, President Xi and GCC leaders congratulated Qatar for hosting a successful FIFA World Cup and for the important role this global tournament played in the advancement of the region. In official talks with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on the sidelines of the summits in Riyadh, President Xi highlighted China’s support for the Qatar National Vision 2030 and welcomed additional investment from Qatar to China. In an additional celebration of the growing partnership, the Lusail Stadium—constructed by a Chinese company—is featured on a newly issued Qatari banknote.

Chinese Dramas

Popular Chinese TV dramas, such as Mining Town and A Little Reunion, are now being broadcast in over 22 Arab states, including the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Dubai-based Middle East Broadcasting Center launched a Chinese TV section to allow audiences to view these dramas, which will also be available on China-Arab TV, the only Sino-Arab satellite channel in the Middle East.

Final Notes

Algeria and China Sign Executive Plan

On December 5, Algeria and China signed an executive plan for the joint development of the Belt and Road Initiative. In 2013, China displaced France as the main exporter to Algeria and has retained that distinction ever since.

Egypt to Join the New Development Bank (NBD)

Egypt ratified its participation in the New Development Bank on December 7 after first expressing interest in becoming a member in July. The NBD was created by Brazil, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) in 2014.

 Everyone Loves a Panda

Over 500 students, ranging from primary to high school, participated in a drawing contest hosted by the Chinese embassy in Egypt and the Egyptian Education Directorate in Cairo. At the December 7 awards ceremony recognizing the best-illustrated pandas, Chinese Ambassador Liao Liqiang encouraged the young artists to explore “China and the world from an appreciative perspective of mutual learning and sharing.”

Hu Chunhua to Iran and UAE

Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua is visiting the UAE and Iran from December 10 to 14. On December 13, Iran’s First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber and Hu Chunhua will attend a summit on the comprehensive cooperation program between Iran and China.

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