Gulf Disunion 3, May 2012Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates, The Gulf.
Tags: foreign policy, Gulf Disunion, Gulf Union
The following article appeared in Foreign Policy magazine online on the 2nd May 2012.
The leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait) will meet in May to discuss creating a closer federal unit among the states. The idea of closer integration was first put forward in December 2011 by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and recently fleshed out in a speech in the name of Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. The potential benefits of creating a $1.4 trillion economic area of 42 million people were championed, as were the potential benefits of close cooperation and coordination in defense and security policy. While all this makes sense superficially, it is all but impossible to see how a meaningful GCC Union could take place.
In light of the Arab Spring and its ramifications in the Gulf region, it is possible to understand the desire in Saudi Arabia to engage in such a union. Specifically, Bahrain has been wracked with protest since February 2011. Today, demonstrations are sporadic but ongoing while protesters continue to be killed and injured, police are increasingly being targeted in retaliation, and Bahrain’s Formula One jamboree in mid-April was severely tarnished. The underlying concerns in Bahrain for both the al Khalifa elite and their fraternal al Saud allies are that the protests are somehow being stoked and supported by Iran, using Bahrain’s majority Shiite population to “export the Revolution.” While little if any evidence can be found backing up such a claim (see Bassiouni’s report) this is nevertheless the prevalent fear in Riyadh and Manama. Hence Saudi Arabia taking the startling step of sending in several thousand Saudi troops and a variety of armaments into Bahrain as a show of defiant support in March 2011. This action to which the UAE also contributed troops, while Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman mostly obfuscated, was taken under the fig-leaf of a “GCC Peninsula Shield” force action; a moribund pan-GCC force originating from 1984 that has never possessed an ounce of efficacy.
Some kind of Saudi-Bahraini Union is being discussed as a precursor to a wider GCC Union. Such a bilateral union would normalize the Saudi-led military action in Bahrain to potentially pave the way for the permanent stationing of “GCC” troops in Bahrain, while signaling the death knell for any political resolution with Riyadh having a de jure say over such outcomes as opposed to its already potent de facto sway.
Some in the al Khalifa elite appear to be willing to be subsumed into such a union and this is a startling reflection of their heightened concerns. Given the lack of oil and gas resources in Bahrain, the exodus of European banks seriously damaging confidence in this key industry, the profound socio-economic problems that lie mostly unacknowledged at the root of Bahrain’s political troubles, and the hardening political crisis, there are concerns as to Bahrain’s longer term viability as an independent economic entity. Saudi Arabia already gives Bahrain’s elite huge subsidies and support and there is no sign that this could be reversed soon. From the al Khalifa perspective, therefore, if those in Riyadh are not willing to simply continue the economic support without deeper political concessions, with no end in sight to the political and economic crisis, securing guaranteed long-term backing from Riyadh to maintain the status quo may seem sensible.
Overall, while Saudi Arabia taking on Bahrain as a loss-making, politically unstable appendage with a majority Shiite population may seem to be unattractive, it is preferable to the alternative. They could conversely see the slow implosion of a fellow Sunni monarchy and the potential ascendance to power of the Shiites next door to Saudi’s Eastern province, which contains not only a majority-Shiite Saudi population but also most of the kingdom’s oil fields and facilities.
As for a wider GCC Union, Saudi Arabia has been trying and mostly failing to engender a united GCC line toward Iran. Oman, Dubai, and particularly Qatar have frequently broken rank and pursued more conciliatory policies to Riyadh’s dismay. Such a union, which may include some provision for a joint foreign policy along the European Union model, may be seen in Riyadh as a way to further the central Saudi goal of uniting against Iran.
Yet as hard as Riyadh might push for a Gulf Union as a means of achieving some kind of GCC foreign policy, expect Qatar, for one, to push equally hard in the opposite direction. The current Qatari elite came to power in 1995. It took 13 years with the return of the Saudi ambassador to Doha in 2008 after leaving in 2003 for Riyadh to realize that Qatar was a sovereign country with an independent foreign policy. Such hard-won independence will not be surrendered lightly, especially considering Qatar’s burgeoning, central role across the wider Middle East.
Moreover, what would Qatar, the UAE, or Kuwait, for example, gain from a Gulf Union? Qatar is at the apex of its international popularity currently and is per capita the richest country on earth. Surrendering powers to a union would seem to benefit Doha in no way whatsoever.
It is the same for the UAE. Though they are currently engaged in a battle with mostly non-existent dangerous “Islamist” elements within society, a topic on which they would likely appreciate some rhetorical back-up from neighboring states, the overall abdication of some autonomy would not suit the UAE. Indeed, the prime reason the UAE pulled out of the GCC single currency is that Abu Dhabi’s elite could not countenance the notion of the central bank being in Riyadh — hardly a communally spirited decision.
Kuwait is mired in its own problems with its perennially fractious parliament. The only sure thing about any GCC Union for Kuwait is that it would complicate and exacerbate its already Gordian parliamentary problems.
Oman, as a poorer relation would likely welcome some closer integration and see it as a hedge against future economic instability and Bahrain’s logic, looking down the barrel of long-term political instability and resultant economic dysfunction, is the same.
Another fundamental problem with any alliance is that it would dominated by Saudi Arabia. Geographically Saudi Arabia is more than five times as large as all other GCC States together and its population is around 10 million greater. For decades, geopolitically, Saudi Arabia has been used to leading not only the Gulf region, but arguably the wider Middle East and Muslim world. This combination of raw facts and Saudi’s historical position mandates, from Riyadh’s perspective, that it would “naturally” take the lead in any such union. And this will be profoundly unacceptable to Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE all of whom have forged independent paths in recent years.
Moreover, within recent memory each state can think back to decidedly unfriendly actions and policies from Saudi Arabia. For the UAE there have been frequent disputes with Saudi Arabia over its borders, which spill out and adversely affect border traffic between the two countries. In 2011 a UAE and a Saudi patrol boat exchanged fire, injuring the Saudi sailors who surrendered and were subsequently repatriated to the kingdom. While this was an isolated incident, it hints at wider, deeper bilateral concerns.
Qatar has long had rocky relations with Saudi Arabia. In the early 1990s Saudi Arabia refused to allow Qatar to pipe its gas to the UAE and to Kuwait; there were border skirmishes in 1992 and 1994; Saudi Arabia allegedly sponsored a counter-coup against Emir Hamad al Thani in 1996; Al Jazeera’s coverage of regional issues has long angered Riyadh; and Qatar’s independent foreign policy also sits poorly with those in power in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, it is only recently that relations have picked up once more but the previous decade’s worth of lamentable relations have not been forgotten.
In Kuwait not only is Saudi Arabia’s intransigence blocking the proposed pipe for gas from Qatar remembered, but also there is little desire to join together. As the speaker of Kuwait’s Parliament, Ahmed al Saadoun, pointedly commented in February, such a union would be difficult for Kuwait to join “with countries whose prisons are full of thousands who are guilty of speaking their minds.”
Lastly, the notion that a Gulf Union might work because the peoples of the Arab Gulf region tend to come from similar religious, historical, social, and familial backgrounds logically makes sense, but so too could the opposite conclusion be drawn. That is precisely the lack of differentiation between a Saudi and an Emirati and a Qatari that will lead these modern day states to resolutely maintain these borders as a means of differentiating themselves from a GCC amalgam identity. Until there is a desire to fundamentally eschew borders in the Gulf region and do away with an Emirati identity in favor of a generic Gulf identity, without a pressing need to join together, a Gulf Union will not be supported.
In the early 1980s in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, the Gulf States first came together to form a union: the 1981 Gulf Cooperation Council. It took this seemingly real, imminent, deeply resonant threat from Iran to force them together and even then, the GCC Peninsula Shield force was never effective.
While today those in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi see a deep and concerning conflagration with Iran emerging, with Tehran’s tentacles allegedly to be found in Bahrain, Iraq, and the Levant according to the orthodoxy, there are key obstacles in the way to deeper security cooperation. Despite the procurement of hundreds of billions of dollars of equipment in recent years, the stories of chronic interoperability issues within armed forces themselves let alone across national armies or navies are legion. Saudi Arabia itself has four forces: its traditional army, navy, and air force, and the Saudi Arabian National Guard (an entire fourth force nominally to protect the king). Yet it is a case of never the twain shall meet and these forces are as much rivals with little if any cross-communication and training as they are united under the Saudi banner.
Yet the core reason why there will be no meaningful security or military cooperation is that the United States guarantees the security in the Gulf. Difficult decisions to subsume personal and state rivalries, to overcome ingrained problems with joint training and even joined up procurement can be avoided with a U.S. security umbrella. Indeed it may be instructive to note that Bahrain, the base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, is the only Gulf country seriously considering such a union and is also the only Gulf country about which there has been a debate recently about the removal of U.S. forces. Only when America, like the Ottomans, and the British before them, finally leave the Gulf will the Gulf States be truly forced to come to terms with their own security situation and will potentially countenance subsuming their national proclivities for a collective alliance.
Reaping the consequences of US foreign policy 4, January 2010Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
Tags: Airline attack, American foreign policy, Consequences, foreign policy, Stephen Walt
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Stephen Walt has an excellent post over at Foreign Policy discussing the recent attempted airline attack. He points out – as basic as this may seem – that US foreign policy has consequences and such near-attacks like this are one direct effect. The US is a big, powerful, interventionist country, yet most Americans just don’t seem to appreciate this fact.
As a society, we seem to believe that we can send thousands of troops to invade other countries, send Reapers and Predators to fire missiles at people we think might — repeat, might — be terrorists, and underwrite the oppressive policies of a host of “friendly” governments, yet never pay any significant price for it back here at home.
I’m not for one minute justifying what groups like al Qaeda do; my point is that we shouldn’t be surprised by it. When a very powerful country spends a lot of time interfering in other’s affairs, and sometimes backing obvious injustices like the Gaza War, then it ought to expect some people to be very angry about it.
Yet Americans still find this surprising, and demand more and more extreme measures to “protect” us. We are like a heavy smoker who gets upset when they get diagnosed with emphysema, or a glutton who thinks it is “unfair” when he winds up with diabetes and high blood pressure.
Obama = Jed Bartlett 12, May 2009Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
Tags: foreign policy, Jed Bartlett, Obama, West Wing
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I see that the people over at Foreign Policy have far too much time on their hands or a cavernous hole in their magazine. Hence they wrote a piece on how Obama is like, or at least owes his success to, fictional President Jed Bartlett from the West Wing. Not that I necessarily disagree with them…
The Chinese media reaction to the Darfur crisis – caught between the old and the new 25, February 2008Posted by thegulfblog.com in China.
Tags: beijing, bias, China, Darfur, Financial Times, foreign policy, human rights, international politics, international relations, media, Olympics, Sudan, Xinhua
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The Chinese media reaction to the Darfur crisis – caught between the old and the new.
The Chinese reaction to the criticism of their Sudanese policies has varied widely. Liu Guijin the Chinese special envoy to Africa spoke eloquently to journalists in London last week. In excellent English, he calmly and coherently made the Chinese case. China was indeed trying to help in Darfur through various meetings and other mediums. China only supplies some 8% of the weapons to Sudan, he claimed, and professed confusion as to how stories exaggerating China’s arms exporting deals come about. “Is it a misunderstanding or is it intentional?” he mused. However, he reiterated the fundamental plank of Chinese foreign policy being non-intervention and was clear that China would only go so far in terms of persuasion. This particular example is similar to the Chinese response in front of the Western media as a whole: professional and slick.
This is in stark contrast to the Chinese domestic response to the same crisis, even in the English language news in China. Take Xinhua for example, the Governmental mouth piece. To choose two of their stories covering Sudan and China, one was titled “Sudan’s FM lauds China’s role in solving Darfur issue.” At a press conference with Liu Guikin the Sudanese foreign minister gave a statement as if it was written for him by the Chinese:
“China is using its good relations with Sudan to help it solve the Darfur issue…China is not here to help Sudan in a way that will prompt the Darfur conflict to continue. China is here to help Sudan in issues regarding economic developments. China is here to help build Sudan, and China is engaged in business not only in the oil sector, but also other sector…[Commenting on some Western organizations' threat to boycott the Beijing Olympic Games] What they should do is to solve the Darfur issue in a right direction, instead of putting more pressure on China.”
It seems that the Sudanese English language newspapers were equally on message, as quoted in Xinhua:
Sudan Vision, the largest English-language daily in terms of circulation, ran an editorial in both English and Chinese, the first of its kind by a newspaper in Sudan.
“Indeed, Chinese leadership and media refused to trail behind Western fabrications on Darfur, and have instead firmly stood in the face of pressures put on it because it is fully aware of Western attempts to capitalize on the African problem to pass its own agendas which did not change since the colonial era,” the independent daily said in the editorial.
“We have every right to mock at the flawed voices attempting tolink the Olympic Games China will host to the Darfur problem. Such cheap attempt will not affect the eligibility of China for hosting this international activity in the best manner,” the editorial said.
“We, too, appreciate China’s repeated call for political dialogue to resolve the Darfur issue, contrary to Western pressures on Sudan,” it said.
“But the way Western countries dealt with the issue, providing Darfur rebels with funds, weapons and political support, made the rebels reluctant to reach peace. Not only that, the West has continued to use rebels as pawn to achieve its target,” said the editorial.
Such flagrant bias would simply not be tolerated in Western media. Indeed, it would surely be treated with the scorn and contempt that it deserves. What is more puzzling is that China appears to realise this, at least to some extent. You don’t see them peddling this kind of insipid and transparent dialogue in the West, not that they could find (one would hope) a Western newspaper to promulgate Beijing’s line in such an obsequious manner.
Victor Mallet of the Financial Times recently wrote an interesting piece tangential to this theme. He suggested that Beijing ought to open up its media to a greater extent, to allow Chinese people to decide the pros and cons for themselves. Then, “its officials and citizens would be better prepared for the onslaught of criticism and political activism likely to be directed at Beijing’s domestic and foreign policies ahead of the Olympic Games.”
Beijing’s cautious, simplistic and anachronistic assumption that such sycophantic reporting is the safer way to proceed to minimise protest and disharmony is sure to backfire.
Firstly, if people do indeed believe such stories in their entirety then, as Mallet points out, they will be shocked and none too happy with the Western media coverage of events in the lead up to the Olympics. This will create a feeling that the Western media and thus the West are unjustly attacking China just as it is about to take centre stage in one of the most significant events in its recent history. Again, one must not underestimate the importance of the Olympics to the Chinese, in terms of the pride with which they take in hosting it and the prestige that they believe will bestowed on China because of it.
Secondly, for those who read such reports with a wry and rueful smile, the Chinese government are doing themselves no favours. Such reporting suggests gullibility on the part of the reader: not a nice assumption to be fostered upon anyone. Disenfranchising swathes of citizens (and it is surely swathes: most people don’t really take these reports seriously?) will only push them to seek more sources of news, something which the Government seeks to keep under control.
Overall, such reports smack of the old days; of absurd communist pre-Perestroika press or even of Comical Ali, where press reporting was decidedly more fiction than fact. And, to reiterate, the Chinese know better: they show that they do in their modern, fluent and professional Western media interviews. They must not think that they can keep – á la King Canute – the tide of free press and free discussion away from their citizens, it is simply not feasible and, in the long run, not advantageous.
Miliband reclaims democracy promotion from the dark side 15, February 2008Posted by thegulfblog.com in Foreign Policies.
Tags: British foreign policy, David Miliband, democracy, democratisation, democratization, foreign policy, neocon
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The British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband recently made an impassioned speech at Oxford University calling for the promotion, maintenance, and protection of democracy to be one of the central pillars of British Foreign Policy. Needless to say, this is a controversial topic. Few would disagree with the promulgation of such a noble goal: the disagreements begin when it comes to its implementation.
As Miliband points out, something strange happened a few years ago in American politics. Many of those on the right in America went from being conservative to being neo-conservative and with it an about face in their foreign policy. No longer was the right half of America bemoaning American forays into Somalia or Yugoslavia in the name of spreading democracy or indeed simply saving lives; indeed, now they were hawkish advocates of more extreme policies. The notion of regime change ‘for the better’ became a tenet of their policy, that is, however, only as and when dictated by their perceived national security requirements.
Miliband is, therefore, attempting to retrieve the cause of democracy promotion from it having being sullied and ridiculed under the stewardship of the neocons, as – the critics would argue – little more than a fig leaf for neo-colonial invasions. Just to make his stance suitably distance from the neocon position, he opens his speech acknowledging that Iraq and the issues surrounding it have ‘clouded’ the debate and continues by maintaining that democratic norms ‘cannot be imposed’ and that ‘without hubris or sanctimony’ we must support democratic trends wherever possible.
Becoming of an Oxford PPE graduate with a first, he goes on to set out his plans, point by point, issue by issue, taking on the criticisms and countering them largely effectively.
Setting the scene he points out that democracy has come about in waves. In the third wave, from the 1970’s onwards, there have been groups of convertees to the democratic way: Portugal, Greece and Spain in the 1970’s; those from after the fall of the Berlin Wall; and various countries in Latin America and Africa in the 1990’s. However, the hubris encapsulated and exemplified by Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ (the notion that liberal democracy has ‘won’ and is now the inevitable future of all societies) has now been thoroughly discredited with the drying up of conversions to democracy from the Millennium onwards, he maintains. Indeed, Miliband makes a prescient point by suggesting that China and their staggering economic success offer an alternative version of development, which, obviously, does not include democratisation to any meaningful degree. Therefore, more steps are needed to be taken to make sure that democracy is seen once again – to dismember Churchill’s dictum – as the best worst alternative for a government.
Further separating himself from the neocons on this issue, Milliband suggests five ways of promoting democracy, none of which include shock and awe. Firstly, he trumpets technology and its ability to disseminate ‘impartial’ news, to facilitate social discussions via blogging, and the opportunities it affords a country to disseminate its soft power (i.e. the UK spreading its cultural ideas etc via the British Council or BBC Farsi). Secondly, the globalizing raw power of finance and economics, not only ties countries together thereby making wars less likely but can also increase social mobility and with that usually comes a desire for more governmental accountability. Furthermore, the introduction of China, for example, into the world economy means that their society necessarily becomes more open and transparent because of the exigencies of countless international institutions, bodies and mechanisms. Thirdly, he sees aid as a weapon which can promote democracy. He cites the examples of money given to women in Pakistan and Bangladesh being used to help them stand as candidates in local elections as just one such instance. Fourthly, the promise of joining international institutions such as the EU or the World Bank can act, as Vaclav Havel said, as ‘an engine that drives democratisation.’ Fifthly, Miliband concedes that hard power will play some kind of roll. Targeted sanctions or security guarantees, for example, could be used to penalise backsliding or to promote democratisation, as argued by Paul Collier.
All of this sounds good, plausible and the morally correct thing to do. However, there are those who see democracy as an insidious form of cultural imperialism, as summed up in the former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamed’s notion of ‘Asian Values’. Or indeed those who see the initially often destructive nature of democracy and thus relent from its implementation. In answering these charges, Miliband perceptively point towards Amartya Sen’s work which shows that well before the Italian city states were beginning their experiments, peoples of all cultures across the world frequently came together to discuss communal affairs. This is, of course, the essence of democracy and an effective counter point to the distasteful notion of Asian Values.
As for the question of assuaging the initial democratic convulsions, all Miliband can come up with is platitudes: “In countries such as China seeking a stable path to political reform it’s important to recognise that democracy is not a threat to stability but a way to guarantee it.” Really? If China held elections tomorrow Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong would probably vote for independence, not to mention calls for significant autonomy for the various minorities in parts of Southern China and Xinjiang, and how would the rest of the 1.2 billion Han Chinese react to the break up of the motherland?
History has shown that time and again the birth of democracy is initially a painful experience but that it is undoubtedly the best of the worst. The question is whether Miliband has proposed enough carrots and has enough sticks to help persuade countries to follow the path.
The Beijing Olympics and China’s evolving foreign policy 14, February 2008Posted by thegulfblog.com in China, Foreign Policies.
Tags: beijing, China, foreign policy, human rights, international politics, international relations, Olympics
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A recent article in Foreign Affairs suggests that China is modifying its foreign policy. “Over the last two years, Beijing has been quietly overhauling its policies towards pariah states” the authors claim. They then proceed to make a very convincing case almost to the contrary of this statement. Indeed, their evidence at best suggests that China is improving its foreign policy image, without substantial changes in the nuts and bolts. Furthermore, what their ample and well researched evidence suggests to me is that Beijing is being as pragmatic as ever in the pursuit of its foreign policy.
China’s dealings with pariah states are well known. It has intimate relations with despotic North Korea, racist Zimbabwe, genocidal Sudan and terrorist-propagating Iran, to name but a few. The article, however, suggests that there is evidence that in recent times China has been playing a much more forceful hand towards these states, especially when they have fallen under international pressure. They cite many instances of China’s apparent change of foreign policy in recent years.
Regarding North Korea, amongst various other Chinese policies, the authors praise Beijing’s crucial role in forcing North Korea to the negotiating table in 2003. The singing of the UNSC resolution 1696 demanding Iranian suspension of their Uranium enrichment programme is seen – rightly – as a change in step by China. The important role of various Chinese ministers and special envoys in getting Sudan to accept foreign troops in Darfur is also a worthy argument, auguring towards a potential change in Chinese foreign policy. Also, the authors suggest that there has been a distinct cooling in Sino-Zimbabwean relations, despite the lack of significant international pressure, suggesting that China might have proceeded with this change in policy for internal reasons i.e. their overall change in foreign policy.
However, as the authors point out themselves, at every stage of these apparent changes, there were wholly pragmatic reasons for the Chinese to do so. The authors, however, do not fully appreciate explore this reasoning. In the example of Zimbabwe, with the economy plummeting and inflation rising as they have been for some time now, any Chinese investment was simply not seeing any real return. Thus, the cooling of relations between these countries is not, I would suggest, primarily because of Chinese human rights concerns, but simply motivated by basic economics: why would they invest heavily in a country with either poor or no return? The examples of Sudan and Iran can be explained by China’s increased vulnerability to international pressure, for the next year at least. It is difficult to underestimate the importance that the Olympics has for China. Whilst there are a significant number of people in the UK who are generally apathetic or even hostile to the London 2012 Olympics, people in China tend see this as an opportunity to extol China’s virtues after its century of humiliation. Indeed, as for back as 2003 there were Olympic t-shirts abounding in the markets of every Chinese town and Chinese people, when they stopped you in the street to talk (a daily occurrence), would frequently chat about the Olympics. It really is taking on a different level of importance in China. Thus, any notion that it might be branded the Genocide Olympics is a serious political concern for China. It genuinely seems likely that China would modify its international politics to some degree in order attempt to pre-empt or assuage the most vociferous anti-China voices and protect their Olympics from ridicule, protests and marginalisation.
These are only hypotheses. However, these are the simplest and to my mind the best explanation for China’s minor changes in foreign policy in recent years. They are an ultimately rational and pragmatic actor. When the benefits of interaction outweigh international displeasure, then China will ignore international displeasure and trade with the countries in question. However, if and when this calculation shifts – as it has done when the Beijing Olympics are considered – so does the Chinese position.
The engine of China’s soft power boom 4, February 2008Posted by thegulfblog.com in China, Soft Power.
Tags: beijing, british council, China, Confucius Institute, culture, foreign policy, Soft Power, taipei, Taiwan
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The Taipei Times ran a story today complaining about the pervasiveness and effectiveness of Beijing’s Confucius Institutes. These are a relatively recent foray for China. These centres appear to be run along similar lines to Britain’s British Council, France’s Alliance Française and Germany’s Goethe Institute. This is to say that they are there to promote their home country where ever they may be. This is done in many ways. Activities can arrange from arranging music concerts, literary events, organising language classes to disseminating educational material about the home country.
The nameless official in the Taiwanese government claims that “they [the institutes] are controlled by the Chinese government and aim to use education and culture to gain international influence and promote the viewpoints of the Beijing government.” This is as good a definition of soft power as you can get. Indeed, as I have argued before, China have been significantly investing in this aspect of power in recent years. These Confucius Institutes are but one successful aspect of this. It is unsurprising that Taipei are not happy about their number and effectiveness – both Taipei and Beijing essentially propagate a one-China policy with each seeing itself as the rightful leader of the country. It is of course possible that China are using such institutions as some kind of ‘front’ for underhand espionage (indeed, they have shown no qualms whatsoever about stealing from other governments in the past) but this does not seem that likely. However, the official is not even inferring this – merely that China are promoting their culture – hardly the greatest of crimes. Indeed, the world will be a much safer place if China continue down this path of expanding their soft power and forgo the hard power route of coercion and threats.
China and the Middle East – made for each other 27, January 2008Posted by thegulfblog.com in China, China and the ME, Oil, Saudi Arabia, Western-Muslim Relations.
Tags: American culture, China, culture, Dubai, foreign policy, France, GCC, Middle East, money, Oil, trade
Everyone wants a piece of the Middle East at the moment. Israel, unfortunately, takes this quite literally and seems intent on forever expanding its borders with uncomfortable overtones of lebensraum. American companies have, for the most part, been falling over themselves to find GCC cash to bail themselves out of their various woes. The list of those seeking investment is a veritable who’s-who’s of the American blue chip elite: Citigroup, General Electric, Dow Chemicals, and Merrill Lynch to name a few. The French seem to have placed, in a rather un-Gallic, highly capitalistic way, a price tag on their cultural heritage. For about $1 billion, you can now purchase priceless French art, plucked from the bosom of the most famous museum in the world, the Louvre. Furthermore, the French have also taken the name of their most prestigious university in vain by building ‘the Sorbonne Abu Dhabi’ with infinitely easier entry requirements. However, not only have the French been handsomely rewarded for the loan of their culture, but they now have a military base overlooking the straits of Hormuz, so maybe they knew what they were doing all along. Britain were predictably slow on the uptake and are now desperately searching for Middle Eastern cash to bail out the collapsing Northern Rock bank and moving further east, Dubai holdings have invested heavily in the Indian bank ICICI, as well as taking an estimated billion dollar stake in Sony of Japan.
Among those doing their utmost to make friends and influence states in the region are the Chinese. However, they are doing this in a less brash manner. Indeed, to some degree, they have been doing the opposite way by investing in the Middle East. For example, two Chinese state-owned companies are investing some $4 billion in Saudi aluminium production. This is but one half of an example of reciprocal investment between various Middle Eastern countries and China, and, more to the point, you’re going to be seeing a lot more of it.
China are the most natural trading partner for countries in this region. This may seem like something of a bizarre statement, but it stands up to scrutiny. As any good (or even only mediocre) economics student will tell you, two crucial factors when discussing trade are supply and demand.
In terms of supply, the Middle East has oil and money. According to the US Energy Information Administration, as of 1st January last year, the Middle East as a whole had 739 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, more than the rest of the world combined which amounts to 578 billion proven barrels. As for money, thanks to the bumper oil prices of recent years, the region is awash with cash. In total, Morgan Stanley estimate that in 2007 alone, Persian Gulf countries invested around $75 billion overseas. This, therefore, excludes the $500 billion that is being investing domestically in creating new super-cities, trying to look ahead to the paradigm changing day when oil runs out. The crucial point here is that this inflated oil price appears to be with us for the medium term, and, therefore, so do these record profits for Middle Eastern government and thus their ability to generously invest abroad.
As for demand, the same economics student would no doubt tell you that demand is infinite. This is meant in a theoretical way, but when discussing China, the theory becomes a lot more practical. China has a population of 1.3 billion people. By the year 2050, however, the UN population division estimates that (depending on which report you read) the population will rise to between 1.5 – 2 billion people. So not only do these people need their energy needs taken care of, but thanks to China’s phenomenal growth, many people have ever growing energy needs. With greater affluence comes greater demand for bigger and better houses and apartments and, of course, bigger and better cars, to name but two energy consuming factors. In 2007 alone, the Chinese car market grew 20% and overtook Japan as the world’s second largest automobile market, and with tens of millions of people waiting to dump their bicycles, this market is only going to grow faster in the coming years. The staggering conclusion of these factors is that, according to Commentary magazine, China’s demand for imported oil will grow by 960% over the next two decades.
Issues of demand and supply, therefore, are clearly suitably poised for a long and prosperous relationship. Yet there are many more factors to consider. After all, the rest of the world demands oil and will continue to do so for a long time yet. So what makes China so special?
For one thing, China do not have any historical or colonial baggage in the region. This could be construed as a good or a bad thing. For example, France’s long standing relationships with the Emirates clearly made it possible for Abu Dhabi to cede some land for a French military base, and America’s long history in Saudi Arabia made it possible for similar arrangements there in the past. I would suggest that the latter example is more instructive, especially considering the eventual outcome of the US bases in the land of the two holy places. China, however, has a clean slate; indeed, it was as late as 1990 when they officially recognised all GCC countries. There are no old policies to appease, apologise for or defend.
Another aspect that appeals to many governments worldwide is that China are very good partners to have in terms of demands exogenous to the deal itself: there aren’t any. For example, China will never lecture, pressure, castigate or otherwise try to impose their ideals on another state. This is a fundamental pillar of Chinese policy: the absolute and utter respect of sovereignty from criticism or interference. Thus, if a state is not appreciative of America’s lectures regarding full democracy or the rule of law (especially regarding the egregious hypocrisy of Guantanamo Bay) then they will certainly know that they would receive no such criticism from China.
Along the same lines, China make it easier for Middle Eastern companies to invest there. Whilst, as it was shown above, many countries have invested heavily in the West, there is still an element of quasi-racism. This was clearly shown in the Dubai Ports World controversy, where a furore erupted when it was revealed that a Middle Eastern company would be involved with security arrangements at American ports. This would, according to some woefully misguided segments of the American media, lead to security concerns. It is difficult to imagine such security concerns from the Chinese.
Lastly, with significant anti-Americanism in the Middle East, and significant anti-Arab sentiment in America and the West generally, China could offer themselves as a neutral alternative to the Middle East-American/Western axis. It is no great secret that parts of the Middle East have security concerns, which are answered in one way or another by the West generally or America specifically. For example, answered in terms of arms sales ($20 billion only last week) as well as physical protection, as in the Gulf War. However, it must not be forgotten that China has been supplying various countries in the region for a long time now. More to the point, China are more willing to sell certain weapons that the West are – generally – not willing to, such as ballistic missiles and related technology, which were sold to both sides during the Iran-Iraq war, to take but one example. Furthermore, with the amount of industrial espionage that Beijing currently engages in, certain aspects of their armaments technology may not be that far behind the US itself.
However, there are a few caveats. Firstly, America is currently the only power capable of offering a meaningful security blanket, such as the one that freed Kuwait and protected Saudi Arabia. Theoretically, were the Chinese to sell an Atomic bomb ‘off the shelf’ to Saudi, that might negate that particular US role, but such a reckless policy is highly unlikely for the cautious and long-term thinking Chinese. Secondly, the prevalence of American goods, ideas, motifs, restaurants, books, films, TV channels, and music throughout the Middle East, compared to the utter lack of Chinese equivalents, shows that America, or at least, its manifestations are not going anywhere. It does not seem at all likely that McDonald’s will turn into Jowza (dumpling) restaurants any time soon. American culture, therefore, may well be here for the next 100 years, even if the manifestations of American power and trade are not.