**This is the first of a two-part article series covering the UAE’s growing ties with China, and how this will severely impact the US. The second part will address the potential moral and ethical consequences of this relationship.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of the United States’ closet allies, has become a “regional powerhouse” because of “like-minded neighbors, partners, and friends, like China,” said the UAE Ambassador to China in December 2021, while claiming China’s One Belt Initiative (OBI) to be the “cornerstone for the UAE’s next 50 years of prosperity and sustainable growth.”
A month earlier, US intelligence agencies discovered China was secretly building a military facility at Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa Port. And barely three months before that, the Associated Press published a bombshell report, revealing Beijing to be operating a covert “black site” in Dubai to round up, interrogate, and deport dissidents and Uyghur Muslims to China, where they face certain imprisonment or execution.
The Emirati authorities denied having prior knowledge of both revelations, a claim that doesn’t pass a basic smell test. Indeed, China views the UAE as its most strategic economic partner in the Middle East for having secured billions of dollars worth of trade and – more importantly – Abu Dhabi’s signature to Beijing’s OBI. So, it’s highly unlikely China would risk harming its ties to its most “strategic” partner in the region by constructing and operating military facilities and “black sites” without first seeking the UAE’s approval.
China views the UAE as its most strategic economic partner in the Middle East.
US officials are reported to have been “rattled” by these revelations, saying it could “threaten ties” between Washington DC and Abu Dhabi. Last year, US intelligence agencies spotted “crates of undetermined material” being unloaded from two Chinese military aircraft at Dubai’s international airport. US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mira Resnick told reporters, “There are certain categories of cooperation with the PRC [People’s Republic of China] that we cannot live with.”
The US has been the UAE’s most vital ally since the Arab country’s foundation in 1972, with US weapons transforming the country’s de facto ruler – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) – into “the most powerful leader in the Middle East.” He now controls the most potent military force in the Arab world and a sovereign wealth fund worth $1.3 billion.
“His influence operation in Washington is legendary,” observed the New York Times in 2019. “His military is…equipped through its works with the United States to conduct high-tech surveillance and combat operations far beyond its borders.”
For these reasons, the US was caught off guard when the UAE announced in December that it was suspending talks with the US regarding the $23 billion arms deal, which includes the purchase of drones, missiles, and 50 F-35 fighter jets — widely considered the world’s most sophisticated military platform.
In December, the UAE announced that it was suspending talks with the US regarding the $23 billion arms deal.
Analysts described the move as a “significant shake-up” between the two countries, citing the UAE’s strengthening ties to China as Abu Dhabi’s rationale for walking away from the US’ arm package, a claim affirmed by the UAE when it complained about security requirements aimed at guarding against Chinese espionage.
This is a remarkable shunning of American military firepower in favor of protecting China’s foothold and geopolitical interests in the Middle East. It’s therefore little wonder why the Asian superpower’s ambassador to the United Nations described the relationship between Beijing and Abu Dhabi as a “brotherhood” that’s as “deep as the ocean and as firm as a rock.”
No doubt, the Biden administration’s ever-closer ties to the UAE’s Arab Gulf rival, Qatar, gave Abu Dhabi reason to believe that balancing the two superpowers serves Emirati interests in the immediate and long term. But as the rivalry between the US and China heats up, particularly over Beijing’s increasingly threatening military gestures and maneuvers towards Taiwan, it’s unlikely Washington DC will allow the UAE to have its cake and eat it, too.
“In the past, so-called middle [sized] states could avoid making choices, but the UAE’s going to come under increasing scrutiny from both sides [the US and China], depending on how it votes . . . when it is on the council,” an aide to Mr. Anwar Gargash, diplomatic advisor to the UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, told the Financial Times last year. “It’s going to come to the hard choices you have to make,” he said.
If the UAE were forced to make a choice between the US and China today – if it hasn’t already – then Washington better start getting used to the idea of the Emirati nation becoming a full-fledged Beijing-client state. China’s appetite for oil and gas from the Middle East is steadily increasing, all while the US has become progressively less dependent on energy imports.
Washington better start getting used to the idea of the Emirati nation becoming a full-fledged Beijing-client state.
And then there’s the UAE’s insatiable appetite for Chinese technology, including authoritarian surveillance and cyber security solutions, or what Beijing calls – using more Orwellian terms – “safe and smart city technologies.”
Over the past 24 years, China’s exports to UAE have increased at an annualized rate of 15.6 percent, totaling $35.5 billion in 2019. While UAE’s exports to China increased at an annualized rate of 22.8 percent, totaling $14.7 billion in 2019, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC). By comparison, UAE exports to the US barely reached $4 billion in 2019.
Moreover, Emirati policy elites, who rarely – if ever – speak out of step with the Emirati government, are no longer hiding their preference for China over the US. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at Emirates University, told the Financial Times, “There’s a trust deficit with America, which is growing by the day.”
“The trend is more of China [and] less of America on all fronts, not just economically but politically, militarily, and strategically in the years to come. There’s nothing America can do about it,” he said.
Last year, this trend produced successive visits to the UAE by Chinese President Xi Jinping and his deputy Wang Qishan, along with counter-visits to China by Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh bin Rashid, who attended the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. This is unsurprising, given that Beijing has identified the UAE as a “pivot-state” in its trillion-dollar OBI, a cornerstone of its debt-trap diplomacy, which ultimately aims to bring more countries under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s direct influence and control.
Last year produced successive visits to the UAE by Chinese President Xi Jinping and his deputy Wang Qishan.
“Getting rich with China means getting ready to be pressured by China,” observes Peter Harcher, author of Red Zone: China’s Challenge and Australia’s Future. “In China, business does not exist in a universe separate to politics. Business, like everything else, is subordinate to politics.” Harcher documented how Beijing has used economic coercion against 11 of its trading partners during the past decade, including Australia, France, the UK, Japan, South Korea, and Canada.
It’s impossible to believe China’s clenched fist wasn’t behind the UAE’s move to walk away from the deal it had struck with the United States over the F-35 fighter jet program. Because of Washington DC’s insistence, the UAE put mechanisms in place to safeguard against Chinese espionage.
Beyond fears about spying and snooping, however, the US is particularly concerned with Beijing’s “Military-Civil Fusion Development Strategy (MCF),” which aims to “develop and acquire advanced dual-use technology for military purposes” and “strengthen all of the PRC’s instruments of national power,” according to a 2021 report published by the Pentagon.
The US is concerned with China’s ploy to use port-industrial park complexes in the UAE as a front to expand its military presence.
In relation to the UAE, the US is specifically concerned with China’s ploy to use port-industrial park complexes as a front to expand its military presence in the Middle East. The aim is to secure vital energy corridors, which have been largely controlled and dominated by the US for the past seven decades.
China now owns more than 100 ports in over 60 countries, according to a report published by former UK Defense and International Trade Secretary, Dr. Liam Fox, who says some of these key locations give “Beijing strategic dominance without having to deploy a single soldier, ship, or weapon.”
These ports have become a key element in China’s ambition to expand its OBI in the Middle East and North Africa. It’s important to remember China’s first overseas military base was established at the port of Djibouti, located at the entrance to the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, as noted by VOA News, serving as a “warning vis-à-vis Beijing’s port interests in other countries,” such as the UAE and others.
The US is acutely aware these facilities grant China a platform to spy on its military bases and movements in the region.
Clearly, the UAE is caught between a rock and a hard place, stuck between its traditional security guarantor – the US – and its growing economic ties with China. But Abu Dhabi’s recent lean towards Beijing won’t have gone unnoticed in Washington DC.