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Monday, July 6, 2020

Turning Gulf Security Upside Down



06 Jul 2020

This story first appeared as an MEI Insight

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

Resolving the tug of war in the Middle East will require a backing away from approaches that treat conflicts as zero-sum games, and engagement by all regional and external players. To achieve that, players would have to recognise that in many ways, perceptions on both sides of the Gulf divide are mirror images of one another: all parties see each other as existential threats.

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By James M Dorsey

Like many paradigms across the globe, the pandemic and its associated economic downturn have changed the paradigm shaping debates about Gulf security that was inevitably set to gradually migrate from a unipolar US defense umbrella that shielded energy-rich monarchies against Iran to an architecture that was more multilateral. In many ways, the pandemic’s fallout has levelled the playing field and not necessarily in ways that favour current policies of Gulf states.

Saudi Arabia’s relations with the West are increasingly being called into question, with the Saudi–Russian oil price war in March potentially having broken the camel’s back. The Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) stand to lose at least some of the financial clout that allowed them to punch above their weight even if they are likely to exclude arms purchases from their austerity measures.

Weakened financial clout comes at a moment when the Gulf states and Iran are gearing up towards an arms race in the wake of Iran’s recent satellite launch and unveiling of an unmanned underwater vehicle against the backdrop of the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme inching towards collapse. The unmanned underwater vehicle puts Iran in an elite club, of which the only other members capable of producing them are the United States, Britain and China.[1] The satellite adds Iran to a group of only about a dozen countries able to do launches of their own. [2]

Add to this the fact that none of the regional players — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Iran, Turkey and Israel — feel secure that any of the external powers — the United States, China and Russia — are reliable security and geopolitical partners.

Gulf states have, for years going back to the era of Barak Obama if not Bill Clinton, increasingly perceived the United States as unfortunately their only option on the premise that they are not willing to change their policies, particularly towards Iran, but one that is demonstrably unreliable, unwilling to defend Gulf states at whatever cost, and at times at odds with them in terms of policy objectives.

The Gulf states’ problem is that neither Russia nor China offer real alternatives at least not on terms that all Gulf states are willing to accept. Russia is neither interested nor capable of replacing the United States. Moreover, its Gulf security plan is at odds with at least the policy of Saudi Arabia.

The plan calls for a security arrangement modelled on that of Europe under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It would be an arrangement that, unlike the US defence umbrella in the Gulf, includes Iran, not directed against it. It would have to involve some kind of regional agreement on non-aggression.[3]

Saudi Arabia, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has made clear that it is not interested, as is evident in the pandemic where it has refrained, in contrast to other Gulf states, from reaching out to Iran with humanitarian aid even though it last year engaged in an indirect exchange with the Islamic Republic. That exchange died with the killing by the United States in January of Iranian general Qassim Soleimani.

The Elephant in the Room

China is obviously the elephant in the room.

Logically, China and the Gulf states are in the same boat as they grapple with uncertainty about current regional security arrangements. Like the Gulf states, China has long relied on the US defence umbrella to ensure the security of the flow of energy and other goods through waters surrounding the Gulf in what the United States has termed free-riding.

In anticipation of the day when China can no longer depend on security provided by the United States free of charge, China has gradually adjusted its defense strategy and built its first foreign military facility in Djibouti facing the Gulf from the Horn of Africa. With the People’s Liberation Army Navy tasked with protecting China’s sea lines of communication and safeguarding its overseas interests, strategic planners have signalled that Djibouti is a first step in the likely establishment of further bases that would allow it to project long-range capability and shorten the time needed to resupply.

But like with the Russians, Chinese strategic planners and their Gulf counterparts may part ways when it comes to what would be acceptable geopolitical parameters for a rejuvenated regional security architecture, particularly with regard to Iran. Any new architecture would break the mould of Chinese engagement in the Middle East that is designed to shield the People’s Republic from being sucked into the region’s myriad conflicts.

The assumption has long been that China could at best postpone execution, but that ultimately, it would have no choice but to engage in the politics of the region. More recently, influential Chinese analysts are suggesting that China has another option: turn its back on the region. That may seem incredulous given China’s dependence on Middle Eastern energy resources as well as its significant investments in the region.

These analysts argue, however, that China is able to diversify its energy sources and that Chinese investment in the Middle East is but a small percentage of overall Chinese overseas investment. They describe Chinese Middle Eastern economic relations as past their heyday with economies of both in decline and the prospects of the situation in the Middle East getting worse before it becomes better.

“China–Middle East countries is not a political strategic logic, it’s an economic logic. For China, the Middle East is always on the very distant backburner of China’s strategic global strategies … Covid-19, combined with the oil price crisis, will dramatically change the Middle East. (This) will change China’s investment model in the Middle East … The good times of China and the Middle East are already gone… Both China and the Middle Eastern economies have been slowing down … In the future, the pandemic, combined with the oil price problem, will make the Middle East situation worse. So, the China economic relationship with the Middle East will be affected very deeply,” said Niu Xinchun, director of Middle East studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), widely viewed as China’s most influential think tank.[4]

Pessimistic forecasts of economic prospects in the Middle East bolster Niu’s prediction. Data and analytics company GlobalData predicted in an email that depressed oil markets and prices in the Middle East and North Africa would lead to a contraction in non-oil sectors, including construction. “Construction activity for the remainder of 2020 is set to see poor performance … In addition, public investment is likely to be moderate, which will translate into fewer prospects for private sector businesses to grow — especially within sectors such as infrastructure. Expected increase in taxes, selected subsidy cuts and the introduction of several public sector service charges will influence households’ purchasing power, having a knock-on effect on future commercial investments,” said GlobalData economist Yasmine Ghozzi.

Moreover, the downplaying of Chinese economic interest in the Middle East fits a pattern of reduced Chinese capital outflows. “What we may not have seen is how much China has retreated financially already for the past four years … Especially since 2016, China’s outflows have come down dramatically in both lending and investment. Foreign direct investment is now at about 30 per cent of what it was in 2016,” said Agatha Kratz, associate director of Rhodium Group, an independent research provider.[5]

To be sure, Chinese officials and analysts have consistently maintained that the Middle East is not a Chinese priority, that any future battles with the United States will be fought in the Asia Pacific, not in the Gulf. Their assertions are backed up by the fact that China has yet to articulate a comprehensive policy towards the region and in 2016 issued its one and only white paper on policy towards the Arab world that essentially was an elaboration of its basic foreign and defense policy principles.

More likely than China seriously entertaining turning its back on the Middle East is the probability that it is sending the region a message that is not dissimilar from what Russia is saying: get your act together and find a way to dial down the tension. It is a message that appears to varying degrees to have been heard in the smaller Gulf states but has yet to resonate in Riyadh. It is also a message that has not been rejected out of hand by Iran.

Discussing a possible extension of a United Nations arms embargo against Iran, Saudi Ambassador Abdallah Al Mouallimi, arguing in favour of a prolongation, suggested that it would serve Russian and Chinese interests even though they would not agree with that assessment. “They have their views, we respect their views, but their interests would be better served and promoted with the embargo extended,” said Al Mouallimi.[6]

A Chinese Communist Party newspaper made days later a first reference in the People’s Republic’s state-controlled media to reports of an alleged secret 25-year multi-billion-dollar co-operation agreement in Iran amid controversy in the Islamic Republic. Chinese officials and media have largely remained silent about Iranian reports of an agreement worth anywhere between US$120 billion and US$400 billion that seemingly was proposed by Iran, but has yet to be accepted by China.[7]

Writing in the Shanghai Observer, a subsidiary of Liberation Daily, the official newspaper of the Shanghai Committee of the Communist Party of China, Middle East scholar Fan Hongda argued that the agreement, though nowhere close to implementation, highlighted “an important moment of development” at a time that US–Chinese tensions allowed Beijing to pay less heed to American policies.[8] Fan’s suggestion that the US–Chinese divide gave China more room to develop its relations with Iran will not have gone unnoticed in Riyadh and other Gulf capitals.

An Emerging Tug of War

How all of this may shake out could be determined by the emerging tug of war in the Middle East between China and the US. Israel has already been caught up in it and has made its choice clear, even if it still attempting to maintain some wiggle room. Nonetheless, Israel, in the ultimate analysis, knows where its bread is buttered, particularly at a moment where the United States is the only backer of its annexationist policies. In contrast to Israel, the US is likely to find the going tougher when it comes to persuading Gulf states to limit their engagement with China, including with telecom giant Huawei, which already has significant operations in the region.

Like Israel, UAE officials have sought to convey to the US that they see relations with the United States as indispensable even though that has yet to be put to a test when it comes to China. Gulf officials’ stress on the importance of ties will, however, not shield them from American demands that they review and limit their relations with China, nor its warnings that involvement of Huawei could jeopardise sensitive communications, particularly given the multiple US bases in the region, including the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command, or Centcom, in Qatar.

The US Embassy in Abu Dhabi, in a shot across the Gulf’s bow, last month rejected a UAE offer to donate hundreds of coronavirus tests for screening of its staff. The snub was designed to put a dent in China’s health “Silk Road” diplomacy centered on its experience with the pandemic and ability to manufacture personal protective and medical equipment.

A US official said the tests were rejected because they were either Chinese-made or involved BGI Genomics, a Chinese company active in the Gulf, which raised concerns about patient privacy. The US softened the blow when the prestigious Ohio-based Cleveland Clinic sent 40 nurses and doctor to its Abu Dhabi subsidiary. The Abu Dhabi facility was tasked with treating the UAE’s most severe cases of coronavirus.[9]

The problem for the US is that it is not only Trump’s policy or lack thereof towards the Middle East that undermines confidence but it is also policies that, on the surface, have nothing to do with the Middle East. The United States has been asking its partners including Gulf states to give it time to develop an alternative to Huawei’s 5G network. Yet at the same time, it is barring the kind of people entry that technology companies need to develop systems.

A Silver Lining

No matter how the tug of war in the Middle East evolves, the silver lining is that, like China, the United States despite its desire to reduce its commitment cannot afford a power void in the region. That is what may create the basis for breaking the mould.

It will require a backing away from approaches that treat conflicts as zero-sum games not only on the part of regional players but also of external players, like in the case of the US versus Iran, and it will require engagement by all regional and external players. To achieve that, players would have to recognise that in many ways, perceptions on both sides of the Gulf divide are mirror images of one another: all parties see each other as existential threats.

Failure to break the stalemate risks conflicts becoming further entrenched and threatening to spin out of control. The opportunity is that confidence-building measures and a willingness to engage open a door towards mutually acceptable regional security arrangements and conflict resolution. However, for that to happen, major powers would have to invest political will and energy at a time when they feel they have bigger fish to fry and prioritise geopolitical jockeying.

In a twist of irony, geopolitical jockeying may prove to be an icebreaker in a world, and certainly a region, where everything is interconnected. Increasingly, security in the Gulf is not just about security in the Gulf. It is not even just about security in the Middle East. It is about security in the Mediterranean, whether one looks at Libya on the sea’s southern shores, Syria in the east, or growing tension in the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean. And it does not stop there with regional rivalries reaching into the Black and Caspian Seas and into Central Asia.

Finally, there are the grey and black swans built into partnerships and alliances that are either becoming more fragile like those of the United States or ones that have fragility built into their DNA like the ties between Iran, Turkey, China and Russia. Those swans could at any moment swing the pendulum one way or another.

To be sure, contrary to Western perceptions, relations between Iran, Turkey, Russia and China are not just opportunistic and driven by short-term common interests but also grounded in a degree of shared values. The fact of the matter is that men like presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei find common ground in a view of a new world order that rejects democracy and the rule of law; disregards human and minority rights; flaunts, at least for now, violations of international law; and operates on the principle of might is right.

That glue, however, is insufficient, to prevent Turkey and Russia from ending up on opposite sides of conflicts in Libya and Syria. It is also unlikely to halt the gradual erosion of a presumed division of labour in Central Asia with Russia ensuring security and China focusing on economic development. And it is doubtful it would alter the simmering rivalry between Iran and Russia in the Caspian Sea and long-standing Russian reluctance to sell Iran a desperately needed anti-missile defense system.

In short, fasten your seat belt. Gulf and broader regional security could prove to be a bumpy ride with unexpected speed bumps.

About the Author

Dr James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture in Germany.

Footnotes
[1] “Iran’s UUV to add new dimension to its warfare capability: Forbes”, Tehran Times, 30 May 2020, https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/448370/Iran-s-UUV-to-add-new-dimension-to-its-warfare-capability-Forbes.
[2] Mike Wall, “Iran launches its 1st military satellite into orbit: reports”, Space.com, 22 April 2020, https://www.space.com/iran-launches-first-military-satellite.html.
[3] Theodore Karasik, “Is Russia’s ‘old’ Gulf security plan the best it can do?”, Arab News, 20 July 2019, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1533096.
[4] Niu Xinchun speaking on “How are China’s Relations with the Middle East Evolving During the COVID-19 Pandemic?”, Chatham House, 19 May 2019, https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2721841274725780.
[5] Agatha Kratz speaking on “China and the Mediterranean Region in and Beyond the Pandemic, German Marshal Fund”, 3 July 2020, https://www.gmfus.org/events/china-and-mediterranean-region-and-beyond-pandemic.
[6] Joyce Karam, “Russian and Chinese interests ‘better served’ if Iran arms embargo is extended, says Saudi official”, The National, 2 July 2020, https://www.thenational.ae/world/the-americas/russian-and-chinese-interests-better-served-if-iran-arms-embargo-is-extended-says-saudi-official-1.1042822.
[7] Seth J Frantzman, “Iran media discuss 25-year deal between Iran and China”, The Jerusalem Post, 3 July 2020, https://www.jpost.com/middle-east/iran-media-discuss-25-year-deal-between-iran-and-china-633739.
[8] Fan Hongda, “Iran announced a 25-year comprehensive cooperation plan with China, can Sino-Iranian relations get closer?” [察家 | 伊朗宣布与25年全面合作计划,中伊关系能否进一步走近?], Shanghai Observer, 20 June 2020, https://www.shobserver.com/news/detail?id=264494.
[9] Interview with the author, 8 June 2020.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Economic Crisis Does Little to Dampen Mohammed bin Salman’s Pricey Ambitions



by James M. Dorsey 

An initial version of this story was first published in Inside Arabia

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

The hiring by Saudi Arabia of an international public relations firm to counter doubts about Mohammed bin Salman’s $500 billion USD dream of a futuristic city on the Red Sea suggests that the kingdom’s economic and financial crisis has not dampened his penchant for big ticket, high-profile projects.

When Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan announced austerity measures in May, including an $8 billion USD cut back on spending on Vision 2030 — Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious plan to restructure the Saudi economy — economists and pundits assumed that was the death knell for trophy projects like NEOM, a $500 billion USD plan for a futuristic mega smart city on the Red Sea.

Economists and pundits may want to think again.

Plagued by questions about the project’s strategic value at a time when the kingdom is struggling with the economic fallout of a pandemic, the impact of an oil price rout, and controversy over the killing of a tribal leader who resisted displacement, NEOM last week sought to counter the criticism by hiring a US public relations and lobbying firm.

NEOM’s $1.7 million USD contract with Ruder Finn – a PR company with offices in the US, Britain, and Asia – was concluded as the kingdom sought to salvage another trophy project, the acquisition of English Premier League soccer club Newcastle United, beset by accusations that the Saudi government had enabled TV broadcasting piracy in its rift with fellow Gulf state Qatar.

The controversy proved to be a lesson in the reputational risk involved in high-profile acquisitions. Piracy was not the only thing complicating the acquisition of Newcastle. So was Saudi Arabia’s human rights record as a result of mass arrests of activists and critics and the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

With the publication of a damning report by the World Trade Organization (WTO), Saudi Arabia moved quickly to counter the criticism by removing boxes of BeoutQ, an operation that pirated sports broadcasts legally contracted by BeIN, the sports franchise of state-owned Qatari television network Al Jazeera. BeoutQ broadcasts were carried by Saudi-based Arabsat.

BeoutQ was taking advantage of the banning of BeIN in the kingdom as part of the three-year-old Saudi-UAE diplomatic and economic boycott of fellow Gulf state Qatar. Saudi sports cafes began broadcasting BeIN for the first time immediately after release of the WTO report.

Like the Saudi response to the WTO, NEOM’s contract with Ruder Finn seems to be an effort to repair reputational damage.

Ruder Finn’s mandate appears designed to counter the fallout of the killing in April of Abdulrahim al-Huwaiti, whom the government labelled a terrorist, and to project NEOM as a socially responsible corporation bent on engagement with its local community.

Taking issue with the suggestion that NEOM was in damage limitation mode, Ali Shihabi, a political analyst, former banker, and member of NEOM’s advisory board who often reflects Saudi thinking, argued in a series of tweets that project NEOM was about much more than refuting negative media reporting.

“There is much more substance to NEOM than ‘flashy projects.’ NEOM will be heavily involved in serious projects like advanced desalination, innovative desert agriculture and more use of solar and wind energy, etc. that are very relevant to the country and the region’s urgent needs. These have been very well planned/researched and some are already being executed,” Mr. Shihabi wrote, admitting that the company behind the project had yet to detail its plans.

Mr. Shihabi’s claims were seconded by Ruder Finn in its filing to the US Department of Justice as a foreign agent.

“NEOM is a bold and audacious dream,” Ruder Finn said. “It’s an attempt to do something that’s never been done before and it comes at a time when the world needs fresh thinking and new solutions.”

Ruder Finn’s contract was announced after NEOM said that it was taking multiple steps to demonstrate that it was being “socially responsible and [would] deliver . . . impactful, sustainable and committed initiatives.”

In lieu of Mr. Shihabi’s anticipated detailing of NEOM’s grandiose plans, Ruder Finn’s filing to the Department of Justice as a foreign agent, as well as NEOM’s announcements, seemed less geared toward projecting the futuristic city’s economic and environmental contribution and more towards repairing damage caused by the dispute with local tribesmen and the killing of Mr. Al-Huwaiti.

Mr. Al-Huwaiti, a leader of protests against alleged forced evictions and vague promises of compensation, was reportedly killed in a gun fight with security forces.

Mr. Al-Huwaiti predicted that he would be either detained or killed in a video posted on YouTube hours before his death. In the video, he claimed that whatever happened to him would be designed to break the resistance of his Huwaitat tribe to their displacement.

He denounced Prince Mohammed’s leadership as “rule by children” and described the kingdom’s religious establishment that has endorsed the Crown Prince’s policies as “silent cowards.”

An estimated 20,000 people are expected to be moved out of an area that Prince Mohammed once said had “no one there.”

NEOM declared earlier this week that it would be offering English-language lessons at its recently established academy and that some 1,000 students would be trained in tourism, hospitality, and cybersecurity.

At the same time, the government said that eligible Saudis would be compensated for loss of land with plots along the coast as part of a program to improve standards of living.

Online news service Foreign Lobby Report reported that Ruder Finn would produce informational materials, including a monthly video to promote NEOM’s engagement with the local community as well as visual materials highlighting the company’s fulfillment of its social responsibility.

Ruder Finn’s efforts were likely to do little to convince the kingdom’s critics.

Writing in Foreign Policy in April, Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s former Middle East and North Africa Director, and Abdullah AlAoudh, a Saudi legal scholar, dismissed NEOM’s grand ambitions. Mr. AlAoudh’s father Shaykh Salman Al-Odah, a prominent reformist religious scholar, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia since 2017 for advocating an end to the rift with Qatar.

“Whether the NEOM project is even remotely viable, given the global financial collapse because of the coronavirus and rising Saudi debt amid historically low oil prices, is highly doubtful,” Ms. Whitson and Mr. AlAoudh said. “The only result we’ve seen from this vision for a futuristic city is the promised destruction of a historic community and the death of a Saudi protester, using archaic means with no room for modern notions of rights and justice.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture in Germany

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Gulf states beware. Chinese policy towards Sri Lanka tells a cautionary tale



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

China was quick to aid coronavirus-stricken Sri Lanka. Chinese magnanimity and speed in responding to the Indian Ocean island’s request contrasted starkly with Beijing’s more measured response to Africa’s needs, widely expected to be the pandemic’s next hotspot.

Geography was but one reason why China favoured the strategic island that straddles one of the Indian Ocean’s busiest shipping routes.

China was rewarding Sri Lanka for stalling military-related talks with the United States two years after the People’s Republic was accused of pursuing predatory debt trap diplomacy. Sri Lanka granted China in 2018 a far greater stake in its port of Hambantota at a moment that it was unable to service its debt to Beijing.

Sri Lanka has so far dragged its feet on signing a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States that would regulate the rights and privileges of visiting US military personnel.

The hold-up was prompted by Sri Lanka’s rejection of the terms of an associated US$480 million Millennium Challenge Compact (MCC) development aid package on the grounds that it impinged on the country’s national security.

At the same time however, Sri Lanka has done nothing to challenge its Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with the United States that governs the transfer of US logistics supplies as well as support and refuelling services for US military operations in the Indo-Pacific region.

The discrepancy in China’s approach towards Sri Lanka as opposed to Africa could revive charges that predatory debt diplomacy is a feature of China’s multi-billion dollar infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to connect the Eurasian landmass to the People’s Republic.

To be fair, only a handful of renegotiations of Chinese debt would suggest that China is using liability as a diplomatic tool.

Nonetheless, China’s willingness to grant Sri Lanka a 10-year US$500 million concessionary loan to deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic in addition to donations of medical supplies offered by China to countries across the globe is likely to raise eyebrows.

The risk is that countries in Africa as well as the Middle East like war-torn Syria and financially bankrupt Lebanon that no longer can count on assistance from Gulf countries struggling with economic woes of their own may feel that they have little alternative but to follow in Sri Lanka’s footsteps.

It is a risk that not only capitalizes on the United States’ already tarnished image but also China’s ability to maintain close ties to Middle Eastern nations without being sucked into the region’s myriad conflicts.

To be sure, there are stark differences between Indian Ocean nations and Middle Eastern states that are in some respects far more dependent on a US defense umbrella designed to protect them against Iran.

Like Sri Lanka, Middle Eastern states benefitted from close healthcare and pandemic-related cooperation with China and unlike the Indian Ocean nation, Gulf states face a financial crisis but not an immediate cash shortage.

Nonetheless, the risk for China of some countries feeling that their security and economic wellbeing is better ensured by a greater balancing of their relations with China and the US is that they will want to see China engaged in regional security arrangements to a degree that Beijing has so far been unwilling to entertain.

The risk is enhanced by US aspirations to reduce America’s commitment to the Middle East and focus attention on Asia and its rivalry with China.

The risk for Gulf states in the implications of China’s policy towards Sri Lanka is that China rather than being sucked into the Middle East and North Africa’s myriad conflicts could opt to reduce its engagement in the Middle East.

Countering Western perceptions of ever greater Chinese economic involvement, Xinchun Niu, director of Middle East studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), widely viewed as China’s most influential thinktank, argues that Chinese-Middle Eastern economic relations have past their heyday. Mr. Niu also suggested that the Middle East ranked low on the Chinese priority totem pole.

“China-Middle East countries is not a political strategic logic, it’s an economic logic. For China, the Middle East is always on the very distant backburner of China’s strategic global strategies… Covid-19 combined with the oil price crisis will dramatically change the Middle East. (This) will change China’s investment model in the Middle East… The good times of China and the Middle East are already gone… Both China and the Middle Eastern economies have been slowing down… In the future, the pandemic combined with the oil price problem will make the Middle East situation worse. So, the China economic relationship with the Middle East will be affected very deeply,” Mr. Niu said.

As a result, Gulf states, among the world’s foremost arms buyers and confronted with a need for far more incisive economic reform in the wake of the pandemic than many other nations, are likely to find a rebalancing of their big power relationships more difficult than Sri Lanka.

The success of Chinese policy towards Sri Lanka is nevertheless more than an isolated incident. It offers insights into what a more assertive Chinese policy could mean for the shaping of a new world order.

"When India or the West get involved in Sri Lankan affairs, there is suspicion as to what the motive is. Is it to divide the country? Is it (to) exploit, subjugate us?" said Jehan Perera of Sri Lanka’s National Peace Council. By contrast, he added, Sri Lankans view Chinese investment as "essentially benign (because) China has never been a historical enemy of this country."

James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture in Germany

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

US-China Rivalry: Gulf States Struggle to Hedge Their Bets



by James M. Dorsey

An initial version of this story was first published in Inside Arabia

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

The Trump administration’s quest to curb relationships between its allies in the Middle East and China offers a preview of how big power rivalry in the region is likely to unfold. It also suggests the limits on the United States’ ability to reduce its commitment to regional security.

While much of the focus in recent weeks has been on Israel’s relations with China, the real litmus test of the United States’ ability to counter the People’s Republic’s growing footprint in the Middle East is likely to be in the Gulf.

In talks last month with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Israeli leaders made clear that while wanting to maintain close relations with China they would not risk jeopardizing their long-standing ties to the United States, their closest ally and supporter of their controversial annexationist policies.

Within days of Mr. Pompeo’s visit, Israel awarded a tender for the world’s largest desalination plant to an Israeli company rather than a competing Chinese firm.

Similarly, Israeli officials say that Israel is unlikely to buy Chinese telecommunication giant Huawei’s 5G offering because of security considerations of its own. The US has been campaigning against integration of Huawei components into networks of its allies.

The real Israeli test may come next year when China takes over the management of Haifa port that is often frequented by ships of the US Sixth Fleet. US officials have suggested that Chinese control of the port could impact the US Navy’s willingness to use Haifa’s facilities.

In contrast to Israel, the US is likely to find the going tougher in persuading Gulf states to limit their engagement with China, including with Huawei, which already has significant operations in the region.

Like Israel, United Arab Emirates officials have sought to convey to the US that they see relations with the United States as indispensable even though that has yet to be put to a test when it comes to China.

“The United States is our single most important strategic partnership. Sometimes people, when they think of our relationship with the US, they just look at the political/military angle. But this relationship is really much, much wider,” said UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash. Such a relationship, he added, is to be found in “IT, in business, investment, in soft power, in the presence of institutions such as NYU Abu Dhabi, in people like me who spent some of the best years of their lives in America.”

Mr. Gargash was speaking after Mr. Pompeo’s visit to Israel and after a senior official issued a direct warning to Gulf states.

“These states have to weigh the value of their partnership with the United States. We want our partner nations to do due diligence,” said US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker.

Describing Chinese aid as “predatory,” Mr. Schenker warned that Huawei’s participation in 5G infrastructure in the Gulf would make it difficult for American and Gulf forces to communicate. Huawei has signed agreements with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain.

“We’re not forcing countries to choose between the United States and the PRC,” Mr. Schenker said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “Countries can and should maintain healthy relationships with both, but we want to highlight the costs” that come with certain engagements with China.

Earlier, an unidentified senior US official warned that Gulf states “risk rupturing the long-term strategic relationship they have with the US.”

The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet operates out of Bahrain while Qatar hosts the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command (CENTCOM).

In a message to Israel that was also intended for the Gulf, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman laid out US concerns.

“For two countries as close to each other as Israel and the US, when they cooperate and exchange intelligence and other secrets for their mutual protection on such a robust level, both countries need to be really careful about exposing that level of cooperation to a foreign power that may have a different agenda,” he said.

Mr. Friedman asserted that China uses investments and infrastructure projects to “infiltrate” countries. “These [Chinese] companies have the ability to flick various switches and gain access to the most sensitive communications.”

The US Embassy in Abu Dhabi, in a shot across the Gulf’s bow, last month rejected a UAE offer to donate hundreds of coronavirus tests for screening of its staff.

The snub was designed to put a dent in China’s health silk road diplomacy centered on its experience with the pandemic and ability to manufacture personal protective and medical equipment.

A US official said the tests were rejected because they were either Chinese-made or involved BGI, a 
Chinese genomics company active in the Gulf, which raised concerns about patient privacy.

The US softened the blow when the prestigious Ohio-based Cleveland Clinic sent 40 nurses and doctor to its Abu Dhabi subsidiary. The Abu Dhabi facility was tasked with treating the UAE’s most severe cases of coronavirus.

The seemingly escalating US effort to box in China is hampered by the fact that no US company produces a 5G alternative. “5G is the future. To reconsider Huawei, the US has to offer an alternative. So far, it hasn’t done so,” said a Gulf official.

The same dilemma applies to the United States’ desire to reduce its commitments in the Middle East. In its global rivalry with China, the US cannot afford to create the kind of void that China and Russia would not be able or willing to fill in the short-term.

“It’s a toss-up,” a Gulf analyst said. “The US can’t compete on 5G and China and Russia can’t compete on security. This is a situation and a set of relationships that requires careful management. The problem is that big power leaders show little inclination to find a middle ground. That leaves Gulf states grappling for ways to hedge their bets.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture in Germany.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Hedging Bets: Turkey positions itself as supply chain alternative to China



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Podbean, Audecibel, Patreon and Castbox.

A Turkish-US business council is projecting Turkey as a trading alternative to China with the help of influential US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a close associate of President Donald J. Trump.

The Turkish effort comes two weeks after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan heralded a new era in long-strained relations with Washington.

Mr. Graham’s agreement to participate in a webinar organized by the Turkey American Business Council (TAIK), an affiliate of the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey (DEIK), the country’s oldest and largest business association, comes amid Turkish efforts to improve relations with the United States as a hedge to its ties to Russia.

“The growing rift between the United States and China creates significant opportunity for geopolitical cooperation. Turkey and the United States would both benefit economically,” said a Turkish businessman.

Criticism of China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has widened the gap between Washington and Beijing and sparked calls for diversification of China-centric global supply chains.

Already hard hit, Turkey’s economy has suffered further body blows as a result of the pandemic at a time that Turkish and Russian forces have in recent months ended up on opposite sides of battles in northern Syria and Libya.

Forces of the Turkish-backed, internationally recognized Islamist Government of National Accord (GNA) drove Russian-supported rebels led by self-appointed Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar out of western Libya in recent weeks after Turkish electronic warfare and drones whacked Russian anti-defense missile systems.

Rejecting calls by Egypt and Mr. Haftar for a negotiated end to the Libyan conflict, the GNA has vowed to push further by taking the Haftar-controlled, oil-rich south-eastern city of Siirt.  Turkey has seconded the GNA’s refusal to negotiate with Mr. Haftar.

Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi suggested this weekend that Egyptian troops could intervene if GNA forces attacked Siirt. An Egyptian intervention could lead to a battlefield confrontation with Turkey and further muddle Turkish attempts to manage differences with Russia.

Turkish efforts to improve relations with the United States are betting on the belief that the GNA’s military victories have dampened US hopes that Mr. Haftar could emerge as a unifying figure in Libya.

Turkish relations with the United States were strained by the NATO member’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defense system, the presence in the US of a Turkish preacher whom Mr. Erdogan holds responsible for the failed 2016 military coup against him, and legal proceedings against a state-owned Turkish bank charged with circumventing US sanctions against Iran.

Mr. Erdogan is also banking on his personal relationship with Mr. Trump that in the past has produced decisions by the US president that overrode opposition from the Pentagon and other branches of his government.

First and foremost was Mr. Tump’s acquiescence to Mr. Erdogan’s request last year for a pullback of US troops in northern Syria that paved the way for a Turkish military incursion.

Mr. Erdogan again sought to capitalize on his relationship with Mr. Trump in a June 9 phone call. “To be honest, after our conversation tonight, a new era can begin between the United States and Turkey,” Mr. Erdogan said without offering further details.

Mr. Erdogan spoke to Mr. Trump as Turkey was projecting itself as an important US trading partner.

The TAIK webinar, entitled ‘A Time for Allies to be Allies: Turkish American Global Supply Chain,’ in which Mr. Graham is scheduled to speak alongside former U.S. Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, is part of an effort to position Turkey as a key player in reducing US dependence on Chinese supply chains.
Foreign Lobby Report, a Washington-based online news service, reported that TAIK, working with lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs, had approached Mr. Graham in March with the proposition that Turkey could serve as the United States’ gateway to Africa.

“As we strive to move forward, we at TAIK are already contemplating how we can reignite the economy post-pandemic,” TAIK chairman Mehmet Ali Yalcindag wrote in a letter to Mr. Graham. “Joint ventures in Africa could be an exciting part of this plan. Not only would we be helping fragile economies that will need assistance in recovering, but we also would be striking a blow against Chinese designs in Africa and forging closer economic ties between Turkey and the US.”

Mr. Yalcindag recommended in a separate letter last month to US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross “an initial focus on LNG (liquified natural gas) and agriculture imports from the US. At the same time, Turkey could boost exports of white goods and automotive parts — diversifying America’s supply chain away from China, a stated goal of the Trump Administration.”

Boosting agriculture exports that were hard hit by Mr. Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports ranks high on the president’s priority list.

Mr. Vitter, the former senator scheduled to speak in the TAIK webinar, backs a push by Louisiana Natural Gas Exports Inc. to provide Turkey with “long-term, secure, competitively priced access to Turkey’s LNG terminals, gas pipeline and storage facilities” that would make the country less dependent on Russian and Iranian imports.

The push came as Botas, Turkey’s state-owned gas grid operator, opened a tender for the construction of a pipeline to Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani exclave in Armenia. The pipeline would allow Azerbaijan to reduce imports from Iran.

Mr. Erdogan and his energy minister, Fatih Donmez, have long called for diversification of Turkey’s energy imports.

Turkey last month authorized twice weekly cargo flights by El Al, Israel’s national carrier, between Istanbul and Tel Aviv despite its strained relations with the Jewish state. Two of those flights ferried medical supplies from Turkey to the United States. The flights to Turkey were El Al’s first in ten years.

“Now is the time to reinforce the climate of cooperation and solidarity, China-dependent firms in the supply chain are…turning their eyes to different countries, Turkey being among them,” Mr. Yalcindag said, pointing to the fact that Walmart, one of the world’s biggest retailers, had begun to source products in Turkey.

Predicting that a decoupling of the United States and China would create common interests between the US and Turkey, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay added that “the pre-pandemic global economy was built on a single supply chain, with China at its core. For countries like Turkey, with our robust manufacturing sector and our young population, this will be an economic opportunity.”

James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture in Germany