China’s strategic evolution in the Middle East: From oil to security

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Beijing’s evolving role in the Middle East reflects shifting power dynamics and China’s broader global ambitions.

China’s President Xi with Arab heads of state at a cooperation summit.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (center) with the king of Bahrain (left), the Egyptian president (center-left), presidents of United Arab Emirates (center-right) and Tunisia (right) and other Chinese and Arab officials at the 10th Ministerial Meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum on May 30, 2024, in Beijing, China. © Getty Images
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In a nutshell

  • In the Middle East, China is pivoting from energy to diplomacy and security
  • As U.S. influence wanes, Beijing is positioning itself as a key mediator
  • China views the region as in the “greater periphery” of its new global order

China’s position in the Middle East has been dynamic for the last 30 years, not least because the position of the United States – traditionally regarded as the region’s dominant foreign actor by Chinese strategists – has also been dynamic. Since becoming a net oil importer in 1993, China has sourced nearly half of its oil from the Middle East. By 2023, Saudi Arabia was China’s second-largest oil supplier, after Russia, accounting for 15 percent of imports. Such energy ties have paved the way for robust and diverse commercial relations. In 2022 alone, trade between China and the Middle East topped $507 billion, doubling the 2017 figure and outpacing growth rates of Chinese trade with other global regions.

Yet Beijing’s ambitions in the Middle East now extend far beyond energy and economics. They are part of its broader vision of a new global order, characterized by new international institutions, alliances and security frameworks crafted to safeguard and advance its strategic interests. In this vision, the Middle East is key.

As American influence in the Middle East has begun to wane, particularly following its withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 and more recently amid regional frustrations with its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, China has intensified its diplomatic and security overtures there. Though it treads carefully, Beijing is steadily positioning itself to assume the role long held by the U.S. in the Middle East.

Securitizing the ‘greater periphery’

Key to understanding China’s objectives in the Middle East is an appreciation of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) concept of security. The prevailing Western narrative suggests China’s interests in the Middle East are primarily based on energy and economics, with little ambition to lead or otherwise guarantee the region’s security. Yet such a perspective misunderstands Beijing’s view of security. It also overlooks China’s long-term approach to foreign and domestic policy.

In Western strategic discourse, security is generally viewed as a pathway to peace, broadly defined as the absence of conflict. Beijing’s perspective differs. Its view of security more closely aligns with international relations securitization theory, where any issue from migration to environmental issues and school curricula can be cast as existential threats to justify extraordinary measures or policies to address them. The aim is not conflict avoidance, but protection of core interests.

Such an understanding is captured by President Xi’s notion of “comprehensive national security,” introduced in 2014. The concept covers 16 areas deemed essential to the CCP’s core interest of ensuring the party-state’s survival, ranging from territorial and resource security to cultural and overseas security. The notion is also closely tied to the goal of achieving “national rejuvenation” by 2049, by which time China should be restored to its supposed rightful place at “center stage” – as the “Middle Kingdom” – of the world. “Middle” here does not mean “between.” Rather, it suggests a China-centric order, akin to the imperial era concept of tianxia, “all under heaven.” China was then the political, economic and moral nucleus, with other states as supplicants forming a “greater periphery” key to its legitimacy.

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Facts & figures

Chinese engagement in the Middle East

Scope of Chinese activity in the Middle East

Under Mr. Xi, Beijing similarly views the Middle East as part of its greater periphery. The region is, then, crucial to its legitimacy and survival. While Beijing likely does not aim to mold the Middle East into its vassal, it does seek to foster alliances and advance norms – including political and security arrangements – that align with its vision of a new global order and that help to secure its desired international preeminence. For both objectives, a benign greater periphery is an existential necessity. This, rather than peace, is what President Xi and the CCP mean when they speak about security.

On this understanding, security emerges as an incontrovertible and increasingly key priority for China in the Middle East – one prompting a range of policy steps.

Mediating its way into the regional security architecture

Since 2013, China has assumed a more assertive role in conflict mediation beyond the Western world. This includes the Middle East, where it has undertaken mediation efforts in Afghanistan and Syria, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, and in Yemen, including with the Houthis. These efforts, driven by domestic and foreign considerations, have not all borne fruit. Yet they have begun to position Beijing as a sought-after mediator, and not only in the Middle East. For example, Ukraine has expressed hope that China could use its clout to guide talks with Russia.

Over time, such growing influence could provide China with significant leverage in shaping regional policy agendas and navigating alliances. It could also empower Beijing to advance regional settlements that align with its core objective of a protected party-state and an alternative global order.

Growing influence could provide China with significant leverage in shaping regional policy agendas and navigating alliances.

In Afghanistan, starting in 2014, Beijing attempted to broker a settlement between the government in Kabul and the Taliban. Chinese officials engaged in bilateral talks with Taliban representatives on five occasions between November 2014 and July 2021: in November 2014, May 2015, July 2016, June and September 2019, and on 28 July 2021. The last exchange – which coincided with the U.S. withdrawal – marked Beijing’s first public recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political entity in Afghanistan. The Taliban seized Kabul two weeks later, on August 15.

Beijing’s mediation efforts had, accordingly, failed. Its eventual acceptance of the Taliban as the Afghan government was likely born of necessity rather than choice, at least initially, but Beijing has since doubled down. In September 2023, it became the first country to appoint an ambassador to Kabul. In December, it became the first to host a Taliban ambassador. Today, hundreds of millions of Chinese yuan flow into the country’s oil, mineral and technology sectors. Such engagement is partly fueled by Beijing’s security considerations in the Xinjiang region, which borders Afghanistan, and from which Muslim separatists have occasionally traveled to Afghanistan for support and training. Beijing also fears Afghanistan could become a new stronghold for the Islamic State, as the group aims to extend its self-declared caliphate into Xinjiang.

Yet in forging closer ties with the Taliban, Beijing has validated engagement with the terrorist group, particularly among non-Western nations, in ways that could reshape alliances worldwide. It has also likely secured a key ally for its Global Security Initiative (GSI), its blueprint for transforming global security governance, which the Taliban have signaled their willingness to adopt. The GSI includes the establishment of new security and counterterrorism frameworks, and an elevated role for the Arab League – all of whose members have endorsed the Belt and Road Initiative. It also includes integrating Middle Eastern states into Chinese-led initiatives like BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Such measures are also key to China’s New Security Architecture for the Middle East, announced in September 2022.

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Facts & figures

China’s support from Arab League countries

China’s support from Arab League countries for the BRI

These steps also underpinned the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, brokered by Beijing in March 2023. The detente is “a successful practice for the strong implementation of the Global Security Initiative,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the time. Riyadh and Tehran have since accepted Beijing’s invitation to join BRICS, which also includes Brazil, India and South Africa, among others, a growing bloc with the potential to wield substantial economic and geopolitical influence in the long run. Last year, Iran also became a full member of the SCO. The detente is notable, too, as it marked a shift in China’s role from a passive facilitator to an engaged mediator, although Iraq and Oman also co-led in the negotiations.

A similarly proactive approach has been evident in the intra-Palestinian talks held between Fatah and Hamas, which Beijing pushed for and hosted in April. Chinese strategists consider it essential to “rearrange internal Palestinian affairs” as a prerequisite for negotiations that might eventually pave the way for Beijing’s preferred two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This would facilitate the realization of a “China-Arab community with a shared future in the new era,” an objective that President Xi stressed at the inaugural China-Arab States Summit in December 2022 and reiterated at the summit this May. The next meeting is planned for 2026.

Such measures are indeed noteworthy. Beijing’s open talk of reshaping the domestic politics of territories and sovereign nation states and of introducing new regional security frameworks indicates a departure from the traditional dominance of American security frameworks in the region. Its efforts to position itself as an “honest broker” for peace in the Middle East also suggest Beijing will continue with steady efforts to move toward center stage. China has only recently begun to navigate this role. The consequences as it refines its approach are worth considering.

Of guns, ports and lessons learned

In the Middle East, as elsewhere, Beijing seeks to achieve its objectives without resorting to open conflict. Its diplomatic initiatives are complemented by strategic arms sales, military and security training programs and the development of dual-use ports. Such efforts serve several purposes. Beijing prefers if regional factions, rather than its own military, are engaged in conflicts that advance or align with its desired security framework. It also recognizes the strategic value of a network of security infrastructure that can be leveraged in the event of active war.

China is not a newcomer to the Middle Eastern weapons market. During the Iran-Iraq War, it sold both sides the same fighter jets – the F-6 and F-7 – as well as tanks, armored personnel carriers and various missile systems. In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia emerged as a willing buyer, aiming to deter both Iran and Israel, purchasing 50 Dong Feng-3 intermediate-range ballistic missiles from Beijing. By the end of the Cold War, China had become the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter, with a notable share of its exports designated for the Middle East. Yet sales tapered off after the war in 1991, when the defeat of the heavily Soviet-equipped Iraqi military underscored the superiority of Western high-tech weaponry over low-tech Chinese and Soviet systems.

As China’s defense industry and global aims have grown, it has sought to diversify its arms exports and security partnerships. Its 2016 “Arab Policy Paper” – China’s first white paper on the region – stressed “cooperation on weapons, equipment and various specialized technologies” and the “development of national defense and military forces of Arab States” as key. Since then, Beijing has increased its exports of ships, aircrafts and advanced missile systems to the region. Between 2013 and 2023, Chinese military sales to the Middle East surged by 80 percent. Major clients include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iraq and Iran (and its proxies). Chinese arms, including assault rifles and grenade launchers, are reportedly being used by Hamas in Gaza. Its anti-ship ballistic missile technology, which it had previously shared with Iran, is likely being deployed by Houthis in the Red Sea. Armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – among the “specialized technologies” noted in Beijing’s white paper, an area where it has gained market advantage – have been used by Iranian proxies in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. They have also been deployed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where Beijing is assisting in building the nation’s first drone factory.

Houthi rebels guaranteed safe passage to Chinese ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Though the terrorist group has since breached that agreement, Beijing has largely remained silent.

Much of this activity is for commercial gain. Yet arms sales also serve as a strategic tool to forge defense partnerships. Most Middle Eastern importers of Chinese weapons either endorse Beijing’s aim of a new, anti-Western world order or seek to dilute Western, notably American, influence in their domestic affairs. The Iran-sponsored Houthi rebels, for instance, have guaranteed safe passage to Chinese ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Though the terrorist group has since breached that agreement, Beijing has largely remained silent. There is merit in aligning with a group that has, since November 2023, continued to disrupt the global maritime order. President Xi aspires to transform China into a “true maritime power.”

Beijing’s arms sales to the Middle East have facilitated joint defense research and manufacturing initiatives, such as the ongoing project between China’s Norinco and the UAE’s International Golden Group, a defense conglomerate, for the long-term development of UAVs, and cooperation with Saudi Arabia on ballistic missile production.

Chinese reach

Arms sales have also opened the door to joint military exercises and cooperation in security and law enforcement. China and Saudi Arabia, for instance, held their first joint naval exercise in the Red Sea in 2019 and more recently conducted operation Blue Sword-2023 in Guangdong province in October. The exercise focused on maritime counterterrorism and “enhancing cooperation” between the two navies.

Several months prior, in August 2023, Beijing and the UAE conducted their inaugural joint air force drills, widely interpreted as a message to the U.S. The move was a signal – from Beijing, that Washington is not the sole security actor in the Gulf, and from Abu Dhabi, that it has options. The two countries recently pledged to modernize and expand their military and security institutions, including law enforcement. China has established at least two overseas police stations in the UAE, located in Dubai and at an undisclosed location. The stations are reportedly operated by the Nantong and Wenzhou public security departments in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, respectively, and collaborate with local UAE authorities. In February, Beijing and the UAE launched a strategic police dialogue, aimed at bolstering cooperation in cross-border crime, cybercrime and policing, with a focus on Chinese training of Emirati security forces. Qatar’s security forces have received similar instruction.

Read more on China by GIS expert Aleksandra Gadzala Tirziu

The Iranians have also forged a close partnership with Beijing in military affairs. In law enforcement, China and Iran have cooperated since at least 2017. Earlier this year, the countries committed to expanding their policing efforts to “deal with [foreign and domestic] factors that foment insecurity.” Given their mutual aim to vanquish the U.S. and shape a global order amenable to their agendas, the factors in question are likely clear. For Beijing, too, such alliances, along with the prospect of Chinese-trained security forces in Iran and critical Middle Eastern regions, could furnish the manpower necessary to thwart any future U.S. or allied operations and secure its greater periphery without risking its own resources.

Such security alliances are bolstered by an expanding network of ports. Following Beijing’s “first civilian, then military” approach, ports ostensibly designated for commercial use could potentially be repurposed to support its security objectives. Beijing has invested about $10 billion in Oman’s Duqm Port, which became its first Gulf port when Oman joined the Belt and Road Initiative in 2018. In the UAE, China has constructed oil pipelines leading to the Port of Fujairah. It has also developed container terminals and logistics centers at Khalifa Port, actions that U.S. intelligence suspects are aimed at eventually establishing a Chinese military base there. While work was halted in 2021 due to U.S. concerns, it resumed last year. Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are also potential hosts for Chinese ports.

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Scenarios

Uncertain: Long-term commitment to regional security

China’s security ties with the Middle East are in their early stages, with Beijing only recently having revived its engagement there. As the U.S. learned long ago, navigating the complexities of Middle Eastern politics, particularly concerning security, is a challenge.

Among the primary obstacles is the balance between Iran, a Shia regime with revisionist ambitions and strong anti-Western sentiments, and the Sunni Gulf states, many of which are China’s primary economic partners and likely strategic military outposts. So far, Beijing has managed to navigate this divide. Yet whether it will be able, and willing, to do so long term remains uncertain.

China has long regarded the Middle East as “the graveyard of empires.” Wishing to avoid a similar fate and depending on its own domestic economic health, Beijing could over time opt to curb its efforts at Middle East security initiatives and instead return focus primarily to economic activities.

Likely: China’s Middle East engagement modeled on its approach to Africa

Yet similar concerns were voiced when China renewed its involvement with Africa in the late 1990s and early 2000s, following a prolonged absence. Since then, Beijing has learned – often through trial and error – to navigate difficult political environments. It is likely to do the same in the Middle East, especially given the region’s strategic significance as part of China’s greater periphery and its role in Beijing’s intended new world order.

With the U.S. largely withdrawn and Russia’s capacity as a security actor curbed by its invasion of Ukraine and sanctions on its defense industry, China now has an opportunity to assume roles traditionally held by both powers. Through arms sales, mediation efforts, military exchanges and infrastructure, it has shown its readiness to do so, now and in the future. Its aim is not peace, but the creation of a benign periphery with China at center stage.

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