Belt and Road takes a leap forward to the Gulf

Red carpet welcome: Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, accompanied by Chinese President Xi Jinping, reviews an honour guard at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, July 22, 2019

The entire myth that India is engaged in some sort of “competition” with China for regional influence gets exposed badly this week as the state visit to China by the UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan got under way today. 

China has hyped up the visit with President Xi Jinping hosting Sheikh Zayed, who was welcomed at the Great Hall of the People with an official reception ceremony on Monday.

In the run-up to the visit, the Chinese ambassador in Abu Dhabi Ni Jian told the UAE official news agency WAM in an exclusive interview that in the Middle East, the UAE has “the deepest, broadest and most fruitful cooperation with China.” 

The ambassador signalled that China is vastly stepping up its cooperation with the UAE in the Belt and Road Initiative. To quote him, “Jointly promoting the Belt and Road Initiative is in line with the UAE’s interests and brings opportunities and momentum to our respective development. As an important regional transport hub and financial and trade center, the UAE has a pivotal role to extend China’s cooperation with the Gulf and the Middle East.”

The Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi also underscored the same thing in another interview with WAM, saying that the cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative “not only benefits our two countries and peoples, but also serves as a positive example and a pacesetter for Belt and Road cooperation between China and Gulf countries. I believe as our two countries strive for substantive, steady and high-quality development of Belt and Road cooperation, the UAE will become a shining pearl along the Belt and Road.” 

Wang added that the UAE was China’s natural partner in the BRI, because of its “favourable location, rich energy and resource endowment, and peaceful and stable society, and as an economic, trade, financial and shipping hub in the Middle East and the Gulf region.” 

Wang said Xi and Sheikh Zayed “will draw a new blueprint for China-UAE comprehensive strategic partnership… Our relationship, having stood the test of the changing international situation, has become… a front-runner in China’s relations with countries in the region.” Without doubt, the elevation of the UAE as the pivotal state in China’s Middle East policy stands out as the leitmotif of Sheikh Zayed’s ongoing state visit. 

Wang rationalised this on following lines: “With progress in energy, finance, infrastructure and industrial cooperation, our practical cooperation has been thriving in multiple areas… Looking ahead, it is important for the two sides to move towards a pattern of cooperation with energy as the centrepiece, and investment and infrastructure development as the two priority areas… (and) to break new ground by expanding cooperation in artificial intelligence, 5G, aerospace, high-speed railway and other high-tech areas.” 

Interestingly, UAE-based telecom operator Etisalat becomes the first in the Middle East and North Africa to commercially launch 5G service and the device in the UAE last month, following a tie-up with Chinese smartphone manufacturer ZTE to offer the service. The UAE publicly announced as early as in February that it would use equipment from the Chinese technology giant Huawei to build a new high-speed wireless network, despite pressure from the United States. 

On Monday, Xi and Sheikh Zayed witnessed the signing of 16 agreements in the fields of defence and military cooperation, economy, oil and environment, nuclear power, etc. In a major development, Dubai’s Emaar Properties will implement a $11 billion project at the Beijing Daxing International Airport that includes residential and leisure facilities across a 5 sq km area at the airport. Again, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) signed a strategic agreement with state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation to explore upstream as well as downstream collaboration. 

China has close and friendly relations with Iran and the UAE is a traditionally ally of the western powers in the Middle East. But that is not coming in the way of China and the UAE forging a comprehensive strategic partnership. India must carefully study how diplomacy can be optimal in the Persian Gulf region. Curiously, India buckled under American sanctions against Iran and rolled back its ties with Iran, but nonetheless continues to import fertiliser from Iran through the UAE at an increased cost of 30 percent (which of course puts the burden on the Indian farmers.) Can there be greater stupidity than that?

On the other hand, the UAE has presented itself as a hub for China’s Belt and Road in the Middle East and North Africa and is an early customer of Huawei’s 5G, notwithstanding the US’ robust opposition to both. No doubt, Sheikh Zayed’s visit signifies a strategic defiance of the US’ containment strategy toward China. 

On its part, China appreciates the UAE’s independent foreign policy and its pragmatic outlook in diversifying its external relations to optimally expand its business opportunities and create wealth. Where China scores in the UAE perception is its capacity to deliver on projects efficiently and in time and in its profile in the Middle East as a benign rising power on the right side of history.

The Chinese soft power is steadily growing in the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, the US attempts to drive a wedge between the Muslim Middle East and China have crash-landed. No Muslim country has voiced criticism of the situation in Xinjiang.