Is China rising in the Arab Gulf region as it is in other parts of world? Does China rise politically and militarily as well as economically in the region? Does its rise represent a golden opportunity for Arab Gulf states? Does China challenge the United States in the Arab Gulf region? What are the strategic responses of the Arab Gulf states toward China’s rise? There is an ongoing debate among scholars of international relations (IR) and Asian studies regarding China’s rise, its forms and types, its impacts on hegemonic power, international order, states’ internal and external politics, and states’ strategic responses toward this rise. Realists argue that any rising power will ultimately challenge the dominant power, seek to change the international order to its favor, attract or coerce by utilizing its increasing economic and military powers the other states to do what it needs and demands. In their view China is not an exception. This dissertation contributes to these discourses by examining if China is rising in the Arab Gulf region, what type is this rise, what it means to the Arab Gulf monarchies, and what are their strategic responses toward it.
This dissertation finds the following: first, although China’s recent increase in prominence and power is profoundly affecting some parts of the world, China is rising only economically in the Arab Gulf region. This rise is an ‘infant energy-oriented economic rise.’ Importing and exporting oil represent the bulk of Sino-Arab Gulf economic ties. In spite of ongoing and planned investments between China and the Arab Gulf states, these investments are mostly in the energy sector and relate mainly to building oil refineries and storage facilities in China in order to increase oil trade between the two sides. Also, although the Arab Gulf states and China are members in many economic forums and dialogues, these forums are merely ‘talk shows’ without any influence in strengthening ties between the two sides. Moreover, Arab Gulf states do not play a significant role in China’s One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR). It can be stated that the mutual economic interests in energy sector are the wheels that have driven China’s infant economic rise and paved the way for it.
Secondly, China’s rise today represents a limited opportunity for Arab Gulf states. China’s increased economic power is not translated into superior security and military power. Also, although China and the Arab Gulf states are increasing their economic/energy ties, their security and military ties are insignificant compared to Arab Gulf states’ ties with their traditional ally, the United States. Therefore, China lacks the ability to provide the Arab Gulf states with the security they need. Four factors set limits on China–Arab Gulf security and military ties: first China’s support and strong political, economic, and military ties with rival states, namely, Iran and Syria. Second, China’s influence over the Arab Gulf states’ traditional allies specifically, Pakistan. Third, the Arab Gulf states’ alliances with the United States. Although the US-Arab Gulf ties have witnessed major political tensions after the events of September 11 and the Arab Spring, the United States will continue to be, for the next few decades, the region’s protector. Fourth, China’s fear of being entangled in the region’s security issues and their impacts on China’s internal stability, mainly the fear of Sunni radical Islam and its links to and impact on Muslims in China.
Thirdly, the Arab Gulf states studied here—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman—are pursuing a “dual hedging” strategy against China and the United States. The strategy has two dimensions. First, they are hedging against the danger that China poses to them by its stance on the region’s security issues. The Arab Gulf states find that China’s approach in their region is threatening their stability and survival. Therefore, while maintaining and increasing their economic and commercial ties with China, they are also strengthening military ties with the United States as well as taking steps on their own to build their militaries. This first dimension of the strategy enables them to cope with indirect threats that China poses to them because of its position regarding the Arab Gulf region’s security matters and support of Iran and Syria. Second, the Arab Gulf states are hedging against the possibility that the United States might someday abandon them. They are utilizing growing economic and commercial ties with China to signal to the U.S. that the Arab Gulf region is no more dominated by the United States. And there is a new power in their region that is willing to strengthen its ties with them without irritating them by interfering in their internal political issues, a new rising power that is perceived by the U.S. as threat to its power and hegemony. Finally, a new rising power that made the U.S. change its foreign and security policies toward the Arab Gulf and ‘pivot to Asia.’ The Arab Gulf states realize that maneuvering between the two powers, the U.S. as the security power, and China as the economic power, is their only strategic choice to fulfil their security and economic needs simultaneously, therefore, securing themselves externally and internally.
Fourth, it is Iran, not Saudi Arabia, which is viewed by China as its primary strategic ally, economic, and security partner in the region. China and Iran cooperate extensively and comprehensively in economic, political, and security aspects. Both are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which is a vital organization in Central Asia, that paves the way for them to upgrade and solidify their security, political, and economic cooperation.
This dissertation applies qualitative methods of research, including online archival research, physical archival research and interviews. Personal interviews with political officials, retired diplomats, scholars, writers, and journalists were conducted in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.