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China and the UAE: The Long Game

China is playing the long game and if left unchallenged, will secure Beijing's control over the global economy for the next century.

"They have a lot in common; both are anti-democratic authoritarian governments".

The unipolar world that formed in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in which the United States reigned as the unrivalled global superpower, appears to be over. The rapidly spreading influence of China as a major economic heavyweight is creating something akin to Cold War conditions wherein countries of strategic importance to both Beijing and Washington find themselves with considerable bargaining power. Case in point: the United Arab Emirates.

Largely through its cooperation with the US over the past 30 years, the UAE has been able to position itself as a key strategic ally and asset for the United States in the Middle East, and this has enabled and empowered the Emirates to expand their own regional influence. Having attained such a vital status, the UAE, like so many emboldened Western client states in the past (think Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s, or Israel in any era), has begun to act with presumptive impunity and increasing belligerence. They feel they are in a position to map their own strategies and pursue their own objectives in the region without fear of reprisal from the Americans, and one of the new factors at play in this power dynamic is China.

China is Dubai’s top trading partner, and the UAE is China’s most significant trading partner in the Arab world; accounting for roughly 28% of China’s total non-oil trade with the region. There are over 6,000 Chinese companies in the UAE, and approximately a quarter million Chinese nationals living and working in the Emirates. The relationship has metastasized considerably in a relatively short period of time, with China heavily investing in the UAE, particularly in their ports and free zones. One Chinese-owned port near Abu Dhabi was discovered recently to have been using the facility to covertly build a military installation in the country. While the Emiratis denied any knowledge of this project, the US forced them to shut it down regardless. Observers and analysts, as well as American Intelligence agencies found it entirely implausible that Abu Dhabi was unaware of what China was doing, but the incident has barely caused a ripple in the UAE’s relations with either Washington or Beijing.

“In many ways China and the UAE are more logical bedfellows than the UAE and America,” says Radha Stirling, founder and CEO of Detained in Dubai and Due Process International, “They have a lot in common; both are anti-democratic authoritarian governments, both engage in rampant human rights abuses, both are contemptuous of labour rights and safety standards, neither respects international law or due process, they both lead the world in abuse of the Interpol system, and both are surveillance states that completely ban free speech and engage in systematic political repression. It should surprise no one that the UAE colluded with China to convert a commercial facility into a military installation, and the fact that it took months of negotiations by American diplomats to force the UAE to close it down, and that only after a stark ultimatum by Washington, indicates how little leverage the US feels it has right now with the UAE regarding China.”

Over the summer, reports emerged that China may be running “black site” detention facilities in the UAE to persecute political opponents, Uighur Muslims, and other suspects sought by Beijing. Off-the-grid prisons are known to exist within China, but the allegations of such sites in the UAE would represent a new and disturbing development. “We know that there are secret detention facilities in the UAE operated by the Emirati authorities, as a number of our clients report having been held in them,” Stirling explains, “But it appears the Chinese may be operating their own black sites inside the UAE, which of course, could only be with the full knowledge and complicity of Abu Dhabi. This signals a deepening of the alliance between the two countries and reflects their shared values of state repression and disdain for the rule of law. China’s tentacles are spreading inside the UAE, and the US appears powerless to intervene.”

Like many other countries that form what could be referred to as the new non-aligned states, the UAE has recognised that the US-China rivalry is itself wrought with complexities and interdependencies. “America’s competition with China is not like the old Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union,” Stirling says, “The two countries maintain a symbiotic dependency in may areas, while simultaneously jockeying for supremacy, and this creates a dynamic even more advantageous to countries like the UAE who want to play both sides against the middle. While the US economy is itself so inextricably tied to China, the UAE knows Washington cannot claim the moral high ground and oblige Abu Dhabi to sever relations with Beijing, and they know that the US will itself be obliged to look the other way as the UAE cosies up even further with China. The port incident showed Abu Dhabi where Washington’s boundaries lie, which means that anything short of Chinese military bases in the Emirates will be tolerated. But this only reveals how much political and economic capital America has already lost in the UAE.

Stirling warns that if the US does not reassert its influence soon, the UAE will inevitably become a client state of China. “The mutual interests are too many,” She explains, “The UAE and China are each committed to expanding their influence in Africa and the Middle East, both economically and militarily, and they see eye-to-eye philosophically on issues like human rights, treaties, and respect for international law. It is entirely predictable that the Emirates could become China’s strategic partner in an aggressive campaign to dominate Africa and the Gulf using not only weapons of finance, but actual military conquest. This will have drastic repercussions for the West in everything from food security to access to crucial mineral resources vital for every form of modern technology. While the US is still fixated on Gulf oil reserves, containing Iran, and the project of normalising Arab relations with Israel, China is pursuing the long game with its foothold in the UAE that could, if unchallenged, secure Beijing’s control over the global economy for the next century.”




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