US can hardly find other kit other than coercion in its toolbox for Gulf countries
November 2022 — The same day the 2022 FIFA World Cup kicked off in Qatar, with Chinese elements abound both on and off the field of the games, a White House official told US Gulf allies that deepening certain ties with China would hamper their cooperation with the US.
Bloomberg reported that Brett McGurk, the White House’s Middle East Coordinator, told a panel Sunday at the IISS security conference in Bahrain, “There are certain partnerships with China that would create a ceiling to what we can do… It’s simply a fact and that’s the truth here as anywhere else in the world, based upon relationships between countries that are military competitors of ours.”
The US playbook is all too familiar: attempting to coerce Gulf countries to take sides, and interfering in their diplomatic and domestic affairs.
Some observers say increasing cooperation between China and Gulf countries may have become a stick in the US’ throat. The reason is simple – the US still perceives the region as its own sphere of influence, even if Washington is withdrawing from the Middle East.
For some time, the White House has been holding on to wrong perceptions, the US’ loss must be China’s gain, Ding Long, a professor with the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University, told the Global Times. With such a mentality, it has been piling pressure on its allies and partners, telling them with whom they can and cannot cooperate with.
The Bloomberg report raised one example – A $23 billion deal to purchase F-35 jets and other weaponry with the United Arab Emirates was suspended after failing to agree on conditions for the protection of US defense equipment. “The Biden administration has also pressured the UAE to remove Huawei Technologies Co. from its telecommunications network, and has pushed it to distance itself from China, the biggest buyer of Gulf oil,” reported Bloomberg.
More examples can be listed. Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, noting the US is ready to advance Iraq’s energy independence. The hidden message in his wordings was aimed at China. But that did not stop Iraq from continuing its cooperation with China on both energy and infrastructural sectors.
The Gulf countries are not buying US words. They are now sobering to the fact that the US has little else to offer other than geostrategic maneuvering. “When Washington keeps hyping the narratives like so-called China influence over and over again, it means the US is running out of tools,” said Ding.
Cooperation between China and Gulf countries is complementary. And China has advantages that the US does not have, such as the market for oil and gas, high technologies, 5G networks, and the capability to promote infrastructure constructions, Ding added.
Lusail Stadium, Qatar’s biggest sporting venue, which will host this year’s FIFA World Cup final, among other products ranging from buses to air conditioners, are built or made by Chinese companies. “Boosting cooperation will be the big trend between China and Gulf countries, and this is unstoppable by the US,” Ding commented.
Some observers describe the mentality of the Gulf region as: they know that engaging China could bring construction, while relying on the US would only bring bombs and shells.
For the Gulf region, China is a constructor, while the US is all focusing on military and arms sales. US tactic is consistent: hyping up confrontation in the region, portraying one particular country or a political force as an enemy or a threat. Against such a backdrop, other countries will naturally be under pressure to purchase arms from the US, He Wenping, a professor at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told Global Times.
Relations with the US based on military cooperation can no longer win the hearts and minds of the people in the Gulf region, nor the trust of the ruling elites, said He. The rulers need to take into consideration the interests of their countries. The US does not come for construction, but military deployment, which does not help in local development. So they naturally turn to more diverse diplomacy.
It is Washington’s one-sided illusion that the Gulf region will surrender once the US imposes pressure. US President Joe Biden paid a visit to Saudi Arabia in July to talk about the oil prices and launched a new chapter of bilateral ties, but in the end Saudi Arabia decided to slash oil production along with its OPEC allies against US wishes. This indicates that the times when the Gulf countries echoed whatever the US said have gone.
The first China-Arab Summit will be held in December in Saudi Arabia. It is believed the summit will represent a landmark in relations between Arab countries and China. The summit itself signals Gulf countries’ strong will to cooperate with China. It also shows that it would be futile for the US to maintain its clout in the Gulf region by imposing pressure and interference, according to Ding.
Moreover, regional countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have become dialogue partners of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Earlier, Saudi Arabia expressed its interest to join BRICS. The future of the Gulf will not revolve around the US, but will around its own interests, emphasizing its own independent and diverse diplomacy. If the US does not reflect on the sharp contradiction between its Middle East policy and the interests of the Gulf, there will be no other convenient kit in the toolbox of the US to exert influence.
The author is a reporter with the Global Times. firstname.lastname@example.org