China's President Xi Jinping and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. Photo: Reuters / Lintao Zhang
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Photo: Agencies

Today, American strategists see Great Power competition with China, rather than countering terrorism, as their country’s primary security concern. Because of this, some suggest that Arab Gulf states may no longer be as relevant to the United States’ geo-strategic calculus as they once were, particularly during the Cold War.

Moreover, no longer reliant on the Persian Gulf region for oil thanks to shale technology, or so goes the argument, the geo-economic rationale behind the United States’ robust military presence in the region no longer applies. And while Iran, ISIS and al-Qaeda remain worrisome to Washington, the US has sought to reallocate military assets away from the US Central Command, which encompasses the Persian Gulf, to the Indo-Pacific theater, where they would serve to counter China’s military edge.

However, Gulf Arab states in fact constitute a key part of the puzzle of countering China’s military and economic footprint. Their geographic location, coupled with their hydrocarbon assets and economic allure, implies that any US strategy aimed at contesting China’s influence must undeniably include sustained and systematic engagement with the United States’ Gulf partners.

In his book The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century, American pundit and analyst Robert Kaplan lays out the military rationale behind fusing the United States’ presence in the Gulf region into its broader Indo-Pacific strategy. Kaplan advocates merging America’s “presence in the Persian Gulf region with that in the South and East China seas,” while “leveraging the growing naval presence of India,” to optimize the United States’ long-term posture against a rising China.

Among the Gulf states, Oman stands out for its geographic proximity to the Hormuz and Bab-el-Mandeb straits. It therefore holds strategic significance to the quest for naval supremacy and the ability to control – or at least deny any rival power control over – vital sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean.

In March 2019, the US signed an agreement with Oman that grants the US Navy access to the ports of Duqm and Salalah. In addition to bypassing the perilous Strait of Hormuz, the two ports, located in the Arabian Sea, serve as key vantage points between China’s naval base in Djibouti and the Pakistani port of Gwadar, in which China holds a major commercial stake. Oman, in other words, is already shaping up as a pivotal player in the great-power competition over the Indian Ocean.

Besides the naval domain, Gulf states hold considerable sway over the great powers’ contest for influence and market share in the global arms industry. Saudi Arabia, for example, was the world’s largest importer of arms between 2015 and 2019, accounting for 12% of global arms imports. In eighth place, the United Arab Emirates was not too far behind.

Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have turned to Beijing to procure military technology, such as armed drones, that Washington has so far refused to sell them. As a sign of their growing defense industrial ties, Saudi Arabia reportedly is setting up the only Chinese facility in the Middle East to manufacture and service armed drones.

Although the US remains their largest arms vendor and has in fact widened its market share in recent years, Gulf states’ gradual turn to Beijing risks eroding the United States’ ability to control end-user operations while affording China the opportunity to widen its defense industrial footprint in the region. 

From a geo-economic perspective, the United States’ military presence in the Gulf provides it with considerable leverage over a commodity that remains vital to China’s economic and military ambitions: oil. Although the US may no longer need oil from the Gulf, China still does, sourcing about 44% of its imports from the region. By maintaining a robust military posture in the region, the US in effect has China’s energy supplies in a stranglehold, allowing it to choke out the Chinese economy in case of conflict. 

Economically, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are China’s top trade and investment partners in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. In 2018, China committed more than US$11.5 billion in investments and contracts in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Despite US warnings, telecom operators in Gulf states, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, are partnering with Huawei to roll out parts of their 5G (fifth-generation wireless) networks. Since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, China also has made inroads into these states’ industrial and logistics sectors, deploying tens of billions of dollars to develop a container terminal at the UAE’s Khalifa port, an industrial city and special economic zone at Oman’s Duqm port and an industrial park in Jazan, Saudi Arabia.

Although Chinese investments have fallen since their peak in 2009 because of slower economic growth and shrinking foreign-currency reserves, China remains an active and ambitious player in strategic sectors of Gulf states’ economies.

To keep China in check, the US will no longer be able to rely on sheer strength alone. Instead, it will need to sustain and leverage key partnerships, such as those with Gulf states, that allow it to maximize its military and economic impact against China.

Although Gulf states will seek to avoid being drawn into the fray, their own security needs all but guarantee a long-term demand for trusted US presence.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Hasan Alhasan is a researcher at the India Institute at King’s College London and an associate fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Previously, he served as a senior analyst at the Office of the First Deputy Prime Minister of Bahrain.