GCC leaders with the Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 43rd session of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit at King Abdulaziz International Convention Center. Image Credit: WAM

A warm reception in Riyadh for President Xi Jinping on a visit to Saudi Arabia early this month, and China’s separate summits with the GCC states and the Arab League demonstrate a nurturing relationship, one which has already overtaken EU as the biggest trading partner for the region.

Declaring that China would work to make the first Arab — China Summits “milestone events in the history of China-Arab relations” Xi reciprocated and conveyed the direction China intends this relationship to go.

King Salman and President Xi signed a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement between the two countries. During the last 20 years China’s relations with the six GCC states have strengthened. These relations are substantial and have value of their own.

Initially driven by China’s increasing energy needs, the relations have now diversified into a robust economic partnership.

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China is one of the key players now in Arab world’s infrastructure development, trade in goods and services, digital technology and is now entering into the field of defence technology.

The way relations are progressing China also appears destined to play a significant role in the continued growth of the GCC’s non-oil industries. The two are moving towards developing relations in areas like tourism, telecommunications, renewable energy, smart cities, artificial intelligence, and technology-oriented businesses.

People in the GCC countries are steadily being exposed to a growing Chinese technology presence, from social networking applications to digital payment platforms.

Growing China-GCC ties

Chinese influence is also becoming more noticeable in the Gulf’s financial sectors. UAE’s Mubadala sovereign wealth had already set up a $10 billion Joint Investment Fund with its Chinese partners since 2015.

Twenty-one Arab states have already signed up for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The UAE and Saudi Arabia are number two and three destinations by volume for Chinese construction projects under the BRI.

Earlier this year China presented a five-point initiative for the Middle East. It was based on five principles — mutual respect; upholding equity and justice; achieving nuclear non-proliferation; jointly fostering collective security; and accelerating development cooperation.

In fact, this is the model China uses for fostering its relations with various countries and regions. China’s policy of non-interference has had a remarkable success in its outreach to countries across the world.

This handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace shows Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman looks on, in the capital Riyadh, on December 8, 2022. Agreements worth about $30 billion were being signed today, Saudi state media said. Image Credit: Saudi Royal Palace /AFP

And this policy of refraining from making political demands on interlocutors provides a massive boost to China’s diplomatic capital.

Strong security ties

Since the end of WWII, the US has provided security to the region largely to protect its own energy supplies. For now, despite China’s economic presence, strong security ties between the US and the GCC will continue.

China’s interests in the region are obvious. The GCC region is a critical energy supplier from where China imports nearly 4 million barrels of oil a day, which is half its energy requirements.

The Middle East is at the cross roads to Africa and Europe and China’s investments in port infrastructures at least help China secure these routes. The Arab states as a group are a potential source of diplomatic support for China at the UN and other international fora.

For the Arab states China’s growing markets, investments and its growing technological prowess are of considerable interest. And above all China’s engagement with the Gulf states or others are not saddled with demands of political morality and is based on sovereign equality.

The GCC and China have a remarkable similarity — no two areas have grown as fast as the two in the last about 40 years. The relationship is based on mutual interests only.

This convergence of interests will increase bringing the two closer in the future.

Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Luan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as ambassador to several countries.