As China has competed with the United States for control of the Global South, leaders in Beijing have deployed their world power’s vast financial resources to make an impression on developing countries in Africa and Asia. This strategy has extended as far as the Arab world, where China has financed megaprojects from Muscat to Nouakchott, as American and Russian warplanes fight over Libya and Syria. A lesser-known component of China’s effort to weave the Middle East into its sphere of influence has included tourism, but the coronavirus has jeopardized this plan.
A lesser-known component of China’s effort to weave the Middle East into its sphere of influence has included tourism.
While the news media has highlighted the Arab world’s popularity with tourists from Europe and North America, Chinese visitors have also taken to the region in the last few years. No country provides a better example than Morocco. The quantity of Chinese tourists in Morocco increased from 10,000 in 2015 to 132,000 in 2018 after the kingdom announced visa-free travel for China’s citizens. This connection brought China and Morocco that much closer together.
Beyond improving the Arab world’s economic prospects and leading to a level of dependence on China, tourism presented Chinese officials with an opportunity to spread their soft power in the region. After the spike in the number of Chinese visitors to Morocco, travel websites started lists of the kingdom’s top Chinese restaurants, a sign of Chinese culture’s growing influence in the country.
The coronavirus has all but torpedoed the once-blossoming touristic cooperation between China and Arab business partners such as Morocco. Before the pandemic, Morocco was hoping for as many as 500,000 Chinese tourists this year. The outbreak has forced the kingdom to recalculate as even foreigners living in Morocco full-time have fled. Moroccan officials have also had to wrestle with xenophobia. In February, Moroccan police detained a woman claiming that a little-known Chinese restaurant in Fes had spread a new strain of the coronavirus.
The coronavirus has all but torpedoed the once-blossoming touristic cooperation between China and Arab business partners.
The greater the decline in tourism from China to Morocco, the smaller China’s leverage over the kingdom becomes. Industries tied to tourism composed 19 percent of the Moroccan economy in 2018, but this statistic means little when no Chinese tourists are flying to Morocco.
The consequences of Chinese travelers staying home go far beyond Morocco. In 2018 alone, 875,000 Chinese flew to Dubai, 500,000 to Egypt, and 400,000 to Turkey. Egypt, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates all fall within American officials’ expansive sphere of influence, but China has attempted to court these countries with international trade and foreign direct investment. Until now, tourism offered China another economic avenue into the Middle East.
Like Morocco, Turkey had expected to attract more Chinese tourists before the outbreak. Last year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wrote in an op-ed in The Global Times that he wanted to host a million Chinese visitors a year. Analysts had predicted similar trends elsewhere in the Middle East.
Estimates suggested that 2.2 million Chinese tourists would go to the Arabian Peninsula by 2023, 1.9 million of them heading to the UAE. China’s touristic collaboration with the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council may recover within the next three years, but the coronavirus has cast doubt on any predictions made before the outbreak.
In the past, China’s touristic links to the Middle East enabled the world power to exert pressure on its client states in the region.
In the past, China’s touristic links to the Middle East enabled the world power to exert pressure on its client states in the region. In 2015, Turkey condemned China’s internment of a million Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group that has long faced discrimination in the East Asian country. Officials in Beijing bristled at the criticism and responded by discouraging tourism to Turkey.
Last year, Turkey’s foreign ministry once again tried to draw attention to China’s mistreatment of the Uyghurs, noting that a Uyghur musician and a Uyghur poet had died in prison. In response, Chinese Ambassador to Turkey Deng Li issued a veiled threat: “If you choose a non-constructive path, it will negatively affect mutual trust and understanding and will be reflected in commercial and economic relations.” Though the possibility of China limiting foreign direct investment and tourism might have meant a lot in the past, the coronavirus has sapped China’s might.
With the exception of Turkey, China’s Middle Eastern allies and business partners have refrained from criticizing its persecution of the Uyghurs or crossing the world power’s handful of other red lines, namely China’s claims of sovereignty over the island country of Taiwan. In fact, a number of Muslim-majority countries jumped to China’s defense after Western world powers expressed concern about its dealings with the Uyghurs. With the coronavirus, these alliances may fray.
Countries in the Middle East have overlooked China’s poor record on human rights because pleasing Chinese leaders resulted in economic benefits.
For the most part, countries in the Greater Middle East have overlooked China’s poor record on human rights and the world power’s other problems because pleasing Chinese leaders resulted in economic benefits. If Chinese tourists stop pouring money into the region’s fragile economies, this geopolitical equation may no longer make sense. A dip in tourism may, in turn, lead to an opening for China’s East Asian rivals: Japan and South Korea. Both countries have voiced their interest in forging touristic ties with the Middle East. Neither demands diplomatic subservience.
However, the coronavirus pandemic has created diplomatic opportunities for China. The world power has attempted to repair its reputation in the international community by bankrolling anti-coronavirus projects at the World Health Organization and marshalling its impressive scientific resources in search of a vaccine. Even so, China has suffered long-lasting damage to its economic growth.
Whether China revises its ambitious plans for touristic engagement with the Middle East or not, the outbreak has reshaped the playing field in the region. One way or another, Chinese officials will have to adapt to their new circumstances: a significant loss in economic leverage.