This fit makes the Gulf states and China natural partners in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing’s signature foreign economic policy program. The GCC states see clear alignment between the BRI and their own national development strategies and ambitions, and this is the main reason they enthusiastically embrace it. They have set up joint funds to co-invest in projects such as the UAE’s Hassyan clean coal power plant and the Saudi Yanbu oil refinery.
The BRI provides oil-dependent GCC states with the opportunity to accelerate their transition to knowledge-based economies with less reliance on fossil fuels. China considers the Arabian Peninsula an important link in the BRI’s sprawling chain of countries and projects. In addition to energy, China seeks access to the GCC market for its products and technologies. At the same time, it is interested in using the region’s central location as a hub for reaching other markets in West Asia, Europe and Africa.
Partnerships between the two sides are expected to grow further with time. The mutual hope is that once the Arab region as a whole stabilizes politically and economically, the environment will be more conducive to fostering cooperation among all the countries in West Asia and Arab world – not only the GCC states – and China.
To ensure continuous progress in their relations, there are challenges that should be overcome, however. The first is China’s ability to maintain good relations with different countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which have conflicting interests and different viewpoints on regional security and future development. For example, in war-torn Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iran do not see eye-to-eye on who should rule the country, a dispute that has prolonged the Yemeni conflict.
West Asia is politically complex with a convoluted historical background that has made, and will continue to make, it difficult for any external power such as China to maintain good relations simultaneously with all regional players. The situation will be more complicated as China’s economic involvement in the region intensifies, especially if the security situation worsens. China has been wary about getting too engrossed in the thorny geopolitical and security issues of the region. This includes the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in which the Chinese have cautiously avoided appearing too close to any one side. Beijing has fostered strong ties with Riyadh, Tehran and indeed all the other governments in the Gulf.