US influence in the Gulf: Power is shifting

Government advisers see a loss of Western influence on the Arabian Peninsula after the Chinese president’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

( German government advisers diagnose a dramatic loss of influence of the West on the Arabian Peninsula. Regarding the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping there, Markus Kaim, Middle East expert of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), states: “Once again, we see that the USA is withdrawing from regions and leaving a vacuum that will be filled by others.”

Xi had tried to raise relations with Saudi Arabia to a new level and held summit meetings with the Gulf Cooperation Council and other states. There are talks of trading oil more frequently in yuan in future. In addition, the Huawei corporation, which the USA is fighting tooth and nail, will further strengthen its influence there.

Xi spoke of a “new era” in relations between China and the Arab world; the old US dominance on the peninsula seems to have been broken. This also weakens Germany’s position in the Middle East, which has recently been cracked by the dispute over the World Cup in Qatar.

Experts have been pointing out for some time that the USA has initiated a kind of “gradual (…) withdrawal” from the Middle East in parallel with its ever-increasing focus on the great power struggle against China, as the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) put it in November 2021. This was already the case under US President Barack Obama, who announced a “swing to Asia” in 2011. And, in order to have enough forces available for this, started the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. Donald Trump continued the withdrawal efforts; Joe Biden finally ended both the mission in the Hindu Kush (August 2021) and the mission in Iraq (December 2021).

Even otherwise, Washington’s presence in the Gulf is nowhere near as extensive as before. “After the end of the era of American dominance in the Persian Gulf,” the DGAP judged last year, “the new order will be determined both by littoral states and by external powers seeking to assert their influence in the region.” The think tank counted Russia and Turkey among the “external powers,” but especially China. The Gulf states have been turning towards Beijing for years. This applies above all to Riyadh and the Emirates.

Conversely, China is Riyadh’s biggest trading partner: bilateral trade soared by 30 per cent to 87 billion US dollars last year. Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE were supplied with Chinese vaccines during the Covid 19 pandemic. The Emirates were even able to realise a partial production of Beijing vaccine. In the US, it made waves that Saudi Arabia and the Emirates each use Huawei technology to build their 5G networks. In the case of the Emirates, the will to raise the telecoms industry to 5G levels in close cooperation with China went so far that Abu Dhabi even ignored US threats in the end. If it continued to use the technology, it was to be denied the firmly promised delivery of F-35 fighter jets. Abu Dhabi looked past the announcements.

During Xi’s state visit, China further strengthened its relations with Saudi Arabia, the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and several additional countries in the Arab World. The two sides signed 34 memoranda of understanding on expanding trade and investment worth 30 billion US dollars. They agreed that their governments will cooperate more closely in the future. In particular, the key Saudi development plan Vision 2030 is to be comprehensively linked with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, New Silk Road). Xi announced that China would switch to buying fossil fuels partly in Chinese yuan instead of US dollars in the future.

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