Photo credit: Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency / Getty
Since taking office, President Joe Biden has talked repeatedly about competition with China. To fight off Beijing and other autocracies, he has said, democracies must uphold their values. He has talked much less about the Middle East in that time, and although he has never phrased it in so many words, Biden appears to be trying to deprioritize a region that he believes has consumed too much of America’s attention and resources.
But the competition between the United States and China does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it fenced off within Asia; it is global. In the Middle East, whether it be over China’s infrastructure spending via the Belt and Road Initiative, its thirst for oil, or its cozying up to autocracies and foes of America, the battle between Washington and Beijing is fast playing out. Biden should consider how his foreign-policy priorities—China and democracy—connect in the Middle East, and why pulling too far away from the region could undermine his work on the international stage. This has become even more urgent and difficult in the aftermath of the damaging images of the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the doubts the debacle has cast over the Biden administration’s commitment to values and international engagement.
Headlines about China signing a multibillion-dollar investment-and-trade deal with Iran, or courting Saudi Arabia to maintain access to oil, prompt questions in the Middle East about whether working more with China could benefit the region, and what that would mean for American influence. Yet these discussions remain somewhat superficial—a debate about geopolitics divorced from daily life. Until, that is, sitting in Beirut, one begins to ask how these apparent investments sit alongside stories about Uyghur internment camps in China’s Xinjiang province and the sophisticated surveillance system the Muslim minority group lives under, or why countries that purport to defend the interests of Muslims—Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates—have remained silent about China’s treatment of those Muslims.
China’s growing presence in the Middle East then takes on an ominous immediacy. What surveillance technology is China already selling to autocracies in the region, America’s friends among them, as it has in Iran? Who are the next candidates for a China-style social-credit system? Are some sections of the population in the Middle East the next Uyghurs?
Writing in Foreign Affairs last year, Jake Sullivan, now Biden’s national security adviser, outlined what he described as “America’s opportunity in the Middle East,” arguing that diplomacy could succeed where America’s past military interventions have failed. America’s engagement with the region is typically framed squarely in military or counterterrorism terms and as a binary all-in or all-out choice. Instead, Sullivan suggested an approach relying more on “aggressive diplomacy to produce more sustainable results.” If this is what the Biden administration had envisaged for Afghanistan post-withdrawal, the approach failed at first contact.
In his piece, Sullivan mentioned China only twice, in passing, as a country that was not a credible alternative to America for regional powers such as Saudi Arabia. That may miss the point: It is because of China that America has an opportunity in the Middle East—to win over the region’s people rather than simply dealing with its leaders—as well as a test, proving its commitment to values that China tramples on.
Unlike america’s, China’s dealings with the Middle East are not hampered by a history of enmity with certain countries, such as the troubled relationships the U.S. has with Iran and Syria, nor is China slowed down by a legislative branch that demands accountability for foreign aid and military assistance to allies. For now, Beijing’s approach, focused on economics and devoid of lectures about democracy, has allowed it to benefit from the resources and opportunities on offer in the region, working with countries that abhor one another, such as Israel and Iran, without getting tangled up in the Middle East’s messy politics.
And because Beijing has not yet gotten drawn into political dealmaking in places such as Iraq, or become mired in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it still enjoys favorable ratings in Arab opinion polls. Meanwhile, China benefits greatly from America’s underwriting of regional security. So far, the model has worked: The Middle East is China’s largest source of oil and a strategically important region that feeds its economic growth and ambitions in Asia; in return, Beijing is able to offer ostensibly large amounts of investment.
If America wants to push back against China in the Middle East, it should consider three constituencies, and the opportunities and challenges each offers.
The first group is, from the American perspective, irredeemable: Countries such as Iran and Syria are firmly in the anti-American camp, and there’s no use trying to lure their governments away from China—though Biden should remember that Syrians and Iranians still look to America for courage under repression. Under sanctions and cut off from much of the global economy, Damascus and Tehran see Beijing as a provider of loans and investments, a market for their oil, and more. They bend to Beijing on issues including Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Taiwan, seeing China as a counterweight to the United States. But they (and others) overestimate China’s appetite or capacity for a showdown with America.
Recent efforts by Lebanon’s pro-Iran Shia militant group Hezbollah to appeal to Beijing offer a useful example. Since 2019, Lebanon has been collapsing under the weight of years of mismanagement and corruption, aggravated by smuggling and drug trafficking linked to Hezbollah. The U.S. and Europe have refused to provide aid until political leaders embark on serious reforms. In June 2020, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, claimed to have found the solution: “I have information that is absolutely definite … Chinese companies are ready to bring in money, and without any of the complications that we talk about in Lebanon. We don’t have to give them money, they will bring money into the country.” Yet to this day, little of tangible value has arrived: two small batches of Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines and a shipment of (apparently spoiled) rice.
Nasrallah’s certainty that Chinese companies would be eager to sink money into losing propositions just to push the U.S. out of the Middle East reflects a deep misunderstanding of China, its political strategy, and how it deploys its money. China would undoubtedly like to see American influence wane in the Middle East, but because the region remains crucial for Beijing’s energy security, stability is key. For now that means avoiding confrontation with Washington. And when it comes to talk of China’s supposedly enormous investments—Beijing signed a comprehensive strategic-partnership deal with Tehran in March—the most telling reaction was the bland reception the memorandum got in Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional nemesis and still China’s top supplier of oil. Riyadh’s lack of angst over the agreement was perhaps the best gauge of its expected impact.
The second group to watch is America’s allies. In the same trip during which Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi signed the bilateral deal with Iran, he also traveled to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, Bahrain, and Oman—all places where the U.S. has strong political, military, and economic ties. China’s ambassador to Riyadh wrote in an opinion piece that developing relations with Saudi Arabia was “the priority direction of China’s Middle East policy,” and Beijing held discussions on investing or financing megaprojects in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both of which are attempting to build ambitious new cities from scratch.
Yet most of these projects are too grandiose to improve the daily lives of Egyptians or even many Saudis. While Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman dreams up a $500 billion city in the desert, decrepit infrastructure besets poor areas of Riyadh, and the streets of Jeddah regularly flood after heavy rains. Plans announced 10 years ago to improve road networks and public transportation have yet to be implemented. In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s vanity projects are contributing to a failing economy—almost 10 million Egyptians have fallen into poverty in the past five years.
Whereas the U.S. has little chance of winning over the first, anti-American, group, it has more of an opportunity with these countries, its allies, to push back against Beijing. While China looks to feed the egos of autocratic leaders, the U.S. could offer support for projects that actually improve people’s lives. At his first G7 summit, this year, Biden announced his Build Back Better World infrastructure initiative, meant as a rival to China’s BRI. The American-led plan will apparently focus on projects related to “climate, health and health security, digital technology, and gender equity and equality.” Funding will come from private capital and international financial institutions, and the professed goal is to narrow the $40 trillion infrastructure gap in the developing world by 2035. On paper, the guiding principles are laudable: driven by values, committed to good governance, and climate friendly. (The danger is that, just as with BRI, Biden’s push will be more about marketing and less about real progress—more aid that props up corrupt leaders with little accountability.)
Biden’s plan doesn’t yet mention the Middle East, and investing more effort in the region may sound like the exact opposite of what his administration wants to do. But this approach would allow the U.S. to move away from “forever wars” and grandiose nation building and focus on pragmatic, positive impacts through smart investments, innovation, and entrepreneurship in the one region where Washington faces the risk of a coalition of autocracies, including its own allies, coming together, propped up and encouraged by China.
Even autocratic leaders would welcome such an approach by the U.S. if it can help them ward off the simmering anger of their citizens by alleviating deteriorations in living conditions. Across the region, the effects of climate change and water shortages require urgent attention, alongside rising unemployment. In countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, reversing power outages would be a good place for the U.S. to start to make a positive impact, working alongside allies and the private sector.
That brings us to the third constituency: the people of the Middle East. In a region where the U.S. has had such an outsize presence over the past few decades and is hated and loved—sometimes by the same people at the same time—China appears as a lesser threat in contrast. An opinion poll conducted in 2020 by Arab Barometer shows highly favorable views of China (in 60 percent of the population in Algeria, for example) compared with views of the U.S., but those results also correlate closely with negative opinions of Donald Trump. Other surveys show an absence of strong views about China—its influence is neither feared nor desired, and few express a wish to live in China.
But there are risks for China in embracing leaders such as MbS. While the world shunned the Saudi crown prince in the months following the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Beijing welcomed him without ever raising the issue and then praised the kingdom’s handling of the case in court. Arab journalists, dissidents, and activists took note. And whereas the U.S. has declared China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority group a genocide, Middle Eastern governments, eager to maintain ties with Beijing and worried about political Islamism in their own countries, have largely looked the other way. MbS claimed that “China has the right to take anti-terrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security,” and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE have forcibly deported Uyghurs to China at Beijing’s request. Thus far, protests in the Arab world over treatment of the Uyghurs have been limited, partly because of a lack of awareness but also because people are too busy fighting against repression carried out by their own governments. That may not always remain the case.
America has a rare opportunity to win this constituency over. In Sheikh Jarrah and Baghdad, Aleppo and Beirut—indeed, even in Tehran and Damascus—with every event, every upheaval, the question that people ask themselves is never What will China do? It is still always What will the United States do? Even after the Afghanistan withdrawal, dissidents everywhere will still look to America for courage, if only because there is nowhere else to look. Many in the region, when seeking a place for escape, dream of the U.S.: In an interview with Iranian state television, a Taliban spokesperson tried to explain the crush of people at the Kabul airport by saying that if America offered its planes to take the citizens of any nation to the U.S., people everywhere would get on board. The interviewer interjected, either out of pride or fear of punishment by his superiors, to argue that Iranians would not; the Taliban spokesperson, showing surprising pragmatism, disagreed.
America’s track record is far from pristine, and the damage it has inflicted on its reputation as a result of the way it withdrew from Afghanistan is deep. But the prospect of a league of autocracies in the region, further assisted by China’s oppression toolbox, is a chilling alternative. As Beijing cozies up to authoritarian governments in the Middle East—both friends and foes of the U.S.—Washington has an opportunity to rethink how it engages with the region.
If China offers a model of economic prosperity under autocratic rule, can the U.S. counter with a more positive vision—one that also considers the young generation’s aspirations for justice, rule of law, and governance? Values remain America’s winning argument, but Washington must work even harder now to make this case, especially in the Middle East, where America’s global contest with China should be fought, and can be won.