China’s relations with the Arab and Gulf States

By COL Saud AlHasawi, Kuwaiti Army, US Central Command: Strategy Plans and Policy Directorate; Combined Strategic Analysis Group

27 March 2020


China continues to deepen economic ties with the Gulf Region, with the aim of increasing natural gas market influence & stability. While China does not wish to immediately challenge US influence in the region, it will utilize deepening economic relationships to increase its ability to challenge US goals and influence governments in the Middle East.

Key Points:

  • China has significantly increased its economic, political, and (marginally)security footprint in the Middl East in the past decade, becoming the biggest trade partner and external investor for many Arab and Gulf countries in the Central region.
  • China still has a limited appetite for challenging the US-led security architecture in the Middle East or playing a significant role in regional politics.
  • Yet the country’s growing economic presence is likely to pull it into wider engagement with the region in ways that could significantly affect US interests.
  • The US should monitor China’s growing influence on regional stability and political dynamics, especially in relation to sensitive issues such as surveillance technology and arms sales.
  • The US should seek opportunities for cooperative engagement with China in the Middle East, aiming to influence its economic role on constructive and security/stability initiatives.


“Although distant neighbors, China and the Arab countries have a rather ancient relationship that dates back to the first centuries of the Common Era, long before the advent of Islam. Nonetheless, until the end of the Twentieth Century, China and the Arab States only had a very limited trade relationship (spices, textiles etc).

From its emergence in 1949, the People’s Republic of China was caught in the Cold War between the liberal-democratic West and the communist Soviet Union. At that time, China officially refused to pick a side and joined the non-aligned movement, established during the 1955 Asian-African Bandung Conference and later formalized in 1961 in Belgrade. However, this did not prevent China from supporting national liberation movements in the Third World and fighting both colonialism and imperialism. China indeed endorsed the people’s right to choose their own economic and political systems, which, for instance, explained China’s support to Egypt during the Suez crisis in 1956, the recognition of the Algerian provisional government in 1958 and even the early support to the Palestinian national movement. On their side, many Arab countries supported China’s permanent seat at the UN Security Council in 1971 and progressively established diplomatic relations with Beijing between 1956 and 1990. Nonetheless, between 1949 and 1978, the economic relations remained extremely limited and China focused on northeast and southeast Asian countries.”

Read the entire paper here.

The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of a number of international officers within the Combined Strategic Analysis Group (CSAG) and do not necessarily reflect the views of United States Central Command, not of the nations represented within the CSAG or any other governmental agency.