Preventing a potential US-China Cold War has emerged as a top foreign policy priority for Gulf Arab countries, especially Washington's key partners: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But, as illustrated by the recent controversy over a secret Chinese port being built in the UAE, balancing relations between the established superpower and the rising one is getting harder for smaller states.
Construction of the Chinese facility, near the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi, was halted due to protests from Washington. The UAE insists it was merely a shipping port. Still, it's understandable that US officials suspect China may be trying to establish a military foothold in the Gulf.
For the Gulf states, fears about being forced to choose between their key strategic partner, the US, and their biggest energy customer, China, now rank alongside the threats from Iran and Islamist groups ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaeda. These anxieties reveal much about the uncertain realities of power in the epicentre of global energy.
Even as US attention has shifted to rivalry with China, the Gulf has remained a big part of the geopolitical conversation. When President Barack Obama was advocating a "pivot to Asia" to combat China's rise, he was implicitly suggesting a shift of resources away from Europe and the Middle East. That aspiration has persisted under Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Yet no major drawdown of US military resources in the Gulf has taken place.
This is because a pivot of US attention to East Asia would pull the Gulf and its energy resources along in tow. Most of the dynamic economies of East and South Asia, including China, remain dependent on the energy exported from the Gulf. The two regions are inextricably intertwined.
Still, Washington's Gulf Arab partners have every reason to worry about a weakening of the US commitment to their security. When Iran attacked key Saudi Aramco oil facilities in September 2019, the Trump administration took no action on the grounds that no Americans were killed. But the attack knocked Saudi production off course for weeks, and significantly affected global energy markets. Moreover, it demonstrated an alarming degree of Iranian proficiency in precision guidance and accuracy.
This was an inflection point, but not the beginning, of Gulf Arab doubts about Washington's dependability. So, as part of a wide pattern of strategic diversification, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are solidifying relations with Russia and China, de-escalating with rivals including Iran and Turkey, and reaching out to a potential new partner, Israel.
For now, these countries need outside security support, and only the US can effectively provide it. So, they remain committed to keeping Washington as their main strategic partner.
But there are other imperatives. The Gulf states need to cultivate China as a rising local presence and a crucial customer. They also need to ensure that Iran, which is solidifying a partnership with Beijing, does not develop an exclusive relationship with the Chinese into the future. Saudi Arabia and the UAE cannot afford to allow the only Gulf voices in Beijing to be Iranian. They need to hedge against China's mighty global and regional future.
As the kerfuffle over the reported Chinese port construction demonstrates, it's going to be extremely difficult to balance a close strategic partnership with Washington alongside warm and friendly ties, going beyond mere commerce, with Beijing.
Recent cooperation between the UAE and China has included defence industries, Covid vaccine production, global investment and development, green energy and other significant non-oil trade.
At the same time, the US has been pressing the UAE to drop the Chinese communications company Huawei Technologies Co from its telecommunications network, saying it is an obstacle to a planned $23 billion sale of Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft and drones.
This demonstrates why Gulf leaders are openly fretting about the potential for a full-blown US-China Cold War, in which they would be forced to throw full support behind one or the other. A leading UAE government foreign-policy strategist, Anwar Gargash, explains, "We are all worried very much by a looming cold war … because the idea of choosing is problematic." That's a diplomatic understatement.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.