The last couple of weeks there have been a flurry of articles describing the increasing level of ties between China and Saudi Arabia. This has probably been prompted by the visit of Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Saudi where he met with King Salman and Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
But in fact this Chinese soft power invasion of Saudi Arabia has been going on for over 20 Years, with MBS visiting China in 2019, agreeing to coincide their strategic economic projects, the China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)) and Saudis 30 Year plan.
Many commentators are quick to assert that the relations are based solely on the Chinese need for Saudi oil. Oil is important as the Saudi’s provide about 15% of Chinese oil but that belief in oil as the major reason for Chinese interest in Saudi relations is erroneous and simplistic…..and dangerous. In fact the Chinese see Saudi Arabia as a strategic economic, military, and geo-political target. Saudi Arabia sits astride the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Both are critical to oil producing and access to it plus world wide shipping in general, including access to the Suez Canal.
Why has China had so much success? One can go to Wikipedia for the long list of Chinese programs and initiatives which have drawn the Saudis and Chinese together but I will look at the cultural aspect of the Chinese success in Saudi Arabia.
- The Chinese have no colonial past in the Middle East
- The Chinese are an industrious people without the superiority complex of the Germans or other Westerners.
- The Chinese ability to integrate into other cultures is phenomenal.
Taking the last one first, the Chinese have the advantage of overseas Chinese. They are ubiquitous over the world, particularly in other parts of Asia and Africa. In Saudi Arabia there are about 180,000 Chinese living in Saudi Arabia not including about 60,000 Peoples Republic of China, workers, military advisors, and diplomats, ( with a healthy number of intelligence personnel.) The number of Chinese seems surprisingly large in that they are not often visible . In fact that they are so really seen is a facet of their self- effacing national characteristic. The amazing part of this statistic is that most of the 180,000 are Uyghurs, the Muslim people of the Xinjiang Province of Eastern China. These Muslims in China are victims of relentless oppression by the Chinese Government which advocates the policy of ” sinification” the forcible melding the many various communities of Chinese into a unified ethnicity. There is no Uyghur Lives Matter in China. These people living in Saudi Arabia , despite being in Saudi Arabia for decades,( only a few are actually Saudi citizens keep in touch with relatives and news from Xinjiang. They also apparently have some influence on the Saudi government. The communist, militantly anti-religious regime of China would seem to be incompatible with the Saudi Wahhabi regime.
So the question is…. how do the Chinese continue to construct and increase relations with Saudi Arabia? Partly it is the construct dating from early Leninism…the “United Front ” which entailed a policy of coexisting and working with non communist movements and parties with a common anti-Western policy. This the Chinese in Saudi Arabia do. For instance, when the establishment elite in Washington and much of the European elite were incensed by the fate of Adnan Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist and full time Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer, who was sliced and diced on the orders of MBS, the Chinese kept silent. Meanwhile the Saudis keep quiet regarding the Chinese oppression of their Muslim population.The Chinese assiduously work on all fronts to cultivate neighborly relations using festivals, Chinese holidays, and every people -to -people event is used to establish good relations at the village level. In every event the glories and sanitized version of Chinese history is demonstrated. The objective is to enhance the power and culture of China. The Chinese educators convey the same message. They have had some success in winning over the mostly hostile Chinese Muslim population that resides in Saudi Arabia. This is in contradistinction to the current American educators with whom I have experienced teaching in the Middle East. They are almost always leftists who seem to reinforce Middle Eastern views on the perfidy of the US and the West in general.They seek to enhance their reception by talking the talk they presume will resonate with the audience. George Orwell was wrong when he wrote that,”England is perhaps the only great country those intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.” He was wrong in that American “intellectuals”…have taken over that distinction.(1)
Probably most observers would be surprised to know in addition to the overseas Chinese residing in Saudi Arabia there are around 70,00o Chinese in China. , PRC officials, workers, and military personnel . They are building, teaching, advising all over Saudi Arabia- and they have been doing to for years. One has to understand there is no distinction between commercial and government enterprises in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis are not stupid. Unlike the a large portion of the American present leadership, the rulers know there is no free lunch, and no purity in foreign assistance. However the Saudis, at present, benefit from Chinese assistance, assistance that seems to come without strings – at least for now. They do not need to endure lectures on human rights, the protection of gays, LBGT. They have received weaponry from the Chinese that were forbidden to them by various American administrations. These are advantages of an authoritarian regime… a typical communist tyrannical system, not one we should seek to emulate, but we should understand and work to contest, not on their selected battlefield but one of our own. Perhaps we should not preach democracy in cultures that do not understand the concept or they do and don’t want it…such as the Middle East. Perhaps pursue our own version of a” united front.”
One other remarkable feature of Chinese soft power in the Middle East is the adroit diplomacy that allows them to maintain very cordial relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia. Adversaries for sure.The Chinese seem to sense niches in strategic, economic and military fields that they can fill. Again this is not an argument to provide our most sophisticated weaponry, especially since since the Saudis have problems operating them and an almost non-existent ability to maintain them. But again we should realize that denial of weapons will be met by others, China, Russia, or even some of our “allies” such as the French. Simulated outrage by our foreign policy wonks are not a deterrent.
(1)The assumption that the intellectual class is reserved for the Left is a predominate leftist political and academic media invention.Read Paul Johnson’s dissection ( The Intellectuals) of the intellectual class. Not a pretty picture.
Much of the numbers data was taken fromMohammed al- Sudairi’s monograph “The Communist Party of China’s United Front work in the Gulf: The “Ethnic Minority Overseas Chinese.” of Saudi Arabia as a Case Study.” Research Fellow at the King Feisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.