The UAE's balancing act in the US-China Cold War

Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping after witnessed a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on July 22, 2019.
9 min read
30 December, 2021
Analysis: With the US and China engaged in a power struggle in the Persian Gulf, the UAE is trying to find a delicate balance between the two rival powers while asserting its independence.

China and the United States are engaged in a significant power struggle in the Persian Gulf. The region, despite American neglect over the past decade, has become a major target for China, which wants to replace US influence.

This has aroused US sensitivity to China's activities, prompting countries in the region to learn dispute resolution skills amid rivalries between Beijing and Washington. 

The United Arab Emirates, as one of the US' closest regional allies, is trying to manage the Cold War between China and the US in the Persian Gulf. In the latest development, Emirati officials have expressed dissatisfaction with the way US F-35 fighter jets have been sold and used.

The UAE has threatened to suspend their discussions to acquire 50 American-made F-35 fighter jets, which was a part of a $23 billion deal that also includes the purchase of drones and other advanced munitions. 

The rationale given was the restrictions on sovereignty that the US has put in place on the UAE to limit their use of these fighter jets. Washington is concerned about the close relationship between China and the UAE, and the Biden administration fears that China could covertly acquire the technology behind the F-35 jets if the deal went through.

The UAE protest seems to be more of a verbal threat than a practical one, as both sides later said they hoped to resolve the dispute. This event demonstrated the delicate balance of power by the UAE between China and the US. For the UAE and other Persian Gulf countries, the most important policy is not to choose between the two countries but instead to manage the differences between the two sides. 

"It has been pragmatic for Abu Dhabi to hedge its bets in an increasingly multipolar world against the backdrop of China's geopolitical ascendancy and a relative decline in Washington's influence in the Middle East"

The art of strategic diversification

The UAE has become more active in the last decade than ever before. In the past, the UAE has tried to move within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in line with Saudi Arabia's policies, but recent regional political rivalries (such as trying to penetrate the Horn of Africa and Central Asia), military (through their intervention in Yemen and Libya), and economic differences (diversification and release from the hydrocarbon economy) have led Abu Dhabi to pursue an independent policy from its neighbours, and even from the US, over the past decade.

Along with Barack Obama’s 2012 “pivot to East Asia” strategy, which is being continued by the Biden administration, the UAE realised that it needed to reduce its reliance on the US at the same time. The US’ hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan and their reluctance to respond to the missile strikes on key Saudi Aramco installations in 2019 convinced the UAE to seek strategic diversification and new diplomatic ties with emerging powers like China.

“Asserting the UAE’s independence on the international stage is extremely important to Abu Dhabi. The Emirati leadership is determined to let the world know that the UAE takes orders from no other power,” said Giorgio Cafiero, the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy, in an interview with The New Arab.

“It has been pragmatic for Abu Dhabi to hedge its bets in an increasingly multipolar world against the backdrop of China’s geopolitical ascendancy and a relative decline in Washington’s influence in the Middle East and other regions too.”

The UAE views China as an economic model. It has launched ambitious economic diversification and investment programmes in the country. It is common knowledge that economic development is accompanied by political development; yet the sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf do not pay serious attention to democratisation at home. They look to China for how it has been able to achieve economic development without Western-style political development.

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Cooperation between the UAE and China continues in all areas. In the health sector, the UAE has widely used Chinese Sinopharm vaccines for its citizens and, following Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's visit to Abu Dhabi in March 2021, the two countries agreed to produce it in the UAE. The UAE has positioned itself as an active leader in the fight against Covid-19.

Economically, China has extensive ties with the UAE. The UAE is China's largest non-oil trading partner in the Middle Eastern and North African region. The UAE-China trade volume has reached over $50 billion and is expected to expand further to $200 billion by 2030.

The UAE understands China's economic and political power and does not want to lag behind its rivals in exploiting China's emerging influence. Iran signed a 25-year cooperation agreement with China in March 2021. Under the deal, China will invest $400 billion in Iran. The UAE will not allow Iran to become China's exclusive partner in the region.

Close cooperation between China and the UAE has provoked US protests on several occasions. In November 2021, Washington encouraged the suspension of the construction of a Chinese port in Abu Dhabi after intelligence suggested it might serve military purposes.

The US has previously opposed the UAE's use of Huawei's 5G technology, but the UAE has pressed on despite US pressure. Emirati officials believe that the Chinese, unlike their Western counterparts, provide cheaper technologies of easier access and do not make them conditional on options such as respect for human rights and interference in the country's domestic affairs.

“China’s 'non-interference' foreign policy doctrine sits well with virtually all Arab states, and the UAE is no exception. Emirati officials do not take well to criticism from Western governments and organisations commenting on human rights issues, making cooperation with China more appealing," Cafiero told TNA.

"Likewise, the UAE has not only refused to criticise Beijing for its human rights violations in Xinjiang, but has even come to China’s defence in the face of Western governments accusing Beijing of 'genocide' in this part of China.”

The UAE's balancing act in the US-China Cold War
The UAE threatened to suspend a deal to acquire American-made fighter jets, as the Gulf nation plays both sides of a US-China Cold War. [Getty]

UAE in the middle of a Cold War 

There is currently a “Cold War” between China and the US in the Persian Gulf region. The UAE’s priority is to stay away from it. Abu Dhabi is trying to avoid "selecting one side" by evaluating its policies so as not to trigger US sensitivities.

“What the UAE fears most is being caught in the middle of a Sino-American Cold War in which smaller countries are effectively forced by one side, or maybe both, to choose which to have a relationship with,” Dr Hussein Ibish, Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The New Arab

“As long as neither Washington nor Beijing in effect demands an exclusive relationship, a country as sophisticated as the UAE can almost certainly pull off the balancing act. Preventing a Sino-American Cold War is now a top priority for the UAE and, I assume, Saudi Arabia as well, among others.” 

The UAE’s lowest-cost way to stay out of the cold war is to reduce US sensitivities. The US and China have entered into a major political, arms, and economic competition, and the US is deeply concerned about the Chinese spying on the transfer of advanced US technologies to China. Emirati authorities must understand this and not allow things like the construction of military facilities in their ports to happen again. 

"China is in no position to mimic or supplant the US in terms of a military presence in the waters of the Gulf or on the soil of a range of GCC countries"

“As long as the UAE does not pursue closer military ties to China, particularly the purchase of Chinese military equipment that might be seen as threatening the security of US weapons systems, it's unlikely that the US will object to its economic and commercial ties to China,” Gerald Feierstein, senior vice president and a distinguished senior fellow on US diplomacy at the Middle East Institute, told The New Arab

The UAE's request for the US to replace the Chinese technologies that the Americans are protesting against could be another Emirati strategic move. The US is reluctant to transfer its superior technologies even to its Arab allies, while China is more generous in this regard. Trying to meet the vital and advanced needs of a nation is the legitimate right of every country in the international system, and the UAE is no exception. It's reasonable. 

Alluding to the Huawei dispute, a senior Persian Gulf official said, “The Americans need to give technological alternatives. You can’t say ‘don’t buy their rice, but I don’t produce rice’,” the official added. “It is manageable now, but this issue will be more insurmountable as we move forward.”

The future of ties

Sino-UAE relations are interdependent and the entanglement of interests between the two sides has grown so much that it cannot simply be stopped. China has a special focus on ports in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Chinese policymakers and analysts view port facilities as the cornerstone of sea lane security. This has resulted in a massive strategic investment campaign aimed at building a worldwide network of shipping and port assets. To date, China has invested in more than 100 ports in 63 countries.

The ports of the UAE are one of the geostrategic points of the region that the Chinese are unlikely to simply ignore. This alone can lay the foundations for future Sino-Emirati relations.

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Given the alignment of interests between the two countries, it is unlikely that the US will be able to stop or reverse this process. It may slow it down with complaints around the use of 5G technology, or the construction of Chinese military facilities in the UAE, but is unlikely to fully deter any progress. However, it should not be forgotten that the US is the preferred choice for the UAE.

“The UAE certainly has not given up on the US as the only outside power that can really come if it wants to impose its will in the Gulf region. It is simply indispensable, and neither Russia nor China nor Europe for that matter, could replace the US in the Gulf region in the near or probably even medium-term,” said Ibish.

“The military hardware, especially the highest level of  technology, that Gulf countries possess is American, and there doesn't seem to be a real impetus to shift that. Moreover, the American presence in Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and elsewhere provides a meaningful backstop against radical actions such as an invasion. China is in no position to mimic or supplant the US in terms of a military presence in the waters of the Gulf or on the soil of a range of GCC countries” he added.

Dr Mohammad Salami holds a PhD in International Relations. He is a specialist in Middle Eastern policy, particularly in Syria, Iran, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf region. His areas of expertise include politics and governance, security, and counterterrorism.

Follow him on Twitter: @moh_salami