On July 23, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan ended a three-day trip to China, signing numerous economic, trade, and other cooperation agreements ahead of the UAE-China Economic Forum. As China becomes an increasingly important actor in the Middle East, there is a corresponding rise in analysis of its approach to the developing relationships in the region. The Belt and Road Initiative, the most important foreign policy initiative ever undertaken by the People’s Republic of China, offers a useful blueprint but suffers from a lack of clarity: Everything, it seems, is part of the BRI. There are two types of BRI projects being implemented in the Gulf states – those that support Gulf domestic development programs and those that build regional connectivity, and the latter type demonstrates more about what Beijing wants to achieve in the Middle East.
Since it was announced in 2013, the BRI has become the central pillar of China’s foreign policy. It is a series of hard and soft infrastructure projects consisting of the Silk Road Economic Belt, an overland route across Eurasia, and the Maritime Silk Road Initiative traversing the Indian Ocean region. Of the two, the Gulf monarchies feature in the Maritime Silk Road Initiative, although Kuwait’s Madinat Al Hareer could eventually be linked to the Silk Road Economic Belt. Conceived as a means of addressing a shortage of infrastructure investments in Asia, the BRI is expanding China’s influence and power across Asia and into the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. As its assets and interests increase in states where it has traditionally played a relatively insignificant role, China’s foreign policy is no longer that of a regional power but rather one with global interests.
Among the first type of BRI projects – those that support the Gulf “Vision” plans – there is a range of Chinese state-owned enterprises and private firms contracted to several projects across the Gulf region, building upon a recent history of construction that predates the BRI; the Heritage Foundation estimated that Chinese companies had tendered $30 billion worth of contracts in the Gulf Arab states between 2005 and 2014. There are many examples of these domestic development projects. In Saudi Arabia, the light railway connecting Jeddah to Mecca and Medina, the Yanbu refinery, and the Middle East’s largest power plant were all undertaken in cooperation with Chinese firms. In Qatar, Lusail Stadium, the opening and closing venue for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, is a joint project with China Railway Construction Corp and a Qatari company, and Chinese firms have won contracts for a Doha port expansion project and the construction of a mega-reservoir. In Dubai, a Chinese-Saudi bid was awarded the contract to build an extension for the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, and the China State Construction Engineering Corporation is building Dubai’s Motor City residential development. All over the Arabian Peninsula Chinese firms are involved in major projects supporting Gulf states’ infrastructure and construction plans.
While this type of project is important in building commercial relations, it is the second type that deserves a deeper look. Here, there is a unique pattern of provincial or regional consortiums from China that are deeply engaged in marquee BRI projects in the Gulf states that are part of a strategic approach to building a Middle East presence in which the Arabian Peninsula features significantly. These projects are aligned with official policy documents about the BRI and China’s approach to the Arab world, and also feature in initiatives such as an underdiscussed initiative, the “Industrial Park-Port Interconnection, Two-Wheel and Two-Wing Approach” to China-Middle East cooperation. Rather than cooperation in the pursuit of commercial benefits, these are shaping the future of China’s power in the Gulf as it builds a physical presence that enhances its political, economic, and eventually military capacities.
The park-port approach has identified four industrial parks and ports – two of which are in the same complex – where Chinese multinationals plan to link supply chains and build business clusters. The industrial parks are Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi, the China-Oman Industrial Park in Duqm, Saudi Arabia’s Jazan City for Primary and Downstream Industries, and the TEDA-Suez Zone in Ain Sokhna, Egypt. The four ports are Khalifa Port Free Trade Zone (also in Abu Dhabi), Oman’s Duqm Special Economic Zone Authority, the People’s Liberation Army Support Base in Djibouti, and Port Said in Egypt. These form a horseshoe starting from the Gulf, continuing along the Arabian Sea, up the Red Sea, and into the Mediterranean Sea. At the same time, they collectively underscore the importance of regional connectivity in the BRI and indicate the shape of China’s expanding influence and interests in the Middle East.
An interesting feature in the Abu Dhabi and Duqm port and park complexes has been the role of Chinese regional or provincial business groups. China’s Duqm Special Economic Zone Authority projects are being developed by Oman Wanfang, a consortium of six private firms from Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, in China’s north. Given Ningxia’s landlocked geography, it would seem more likely that Ningxia would be involved with the Silk Road Economic Belt rather than the Maritime Silk Road Initiative. However, the autonomous region has a large Muslim Hui population and as such has featured prominently in Beijing’s efforts to build relations with Arab states and societies. Ningxia’s capital, Yinchuan, is home to the annual China-Arab States Expo and has become a hub for China-Arab trade. With nearly $11 billion committed to the Duqm Special Economic Zone Authority, the Chinese government has designated it as one of the “Top Overseas Industrial Parks.”
In Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa Port complex, much of the early momentum has come from the Jiangsu Provincial Overseas Cooperation and Investment Company. The group of companies from Jiangsu, an eastern coastal province, has invested over $1 billion into the Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi and its chairman described the initiative as “an important cornerstone in China and the UAE’s bilateral industrial agreement.” In September 2018, an investment promotion conference was held in Nanjing, the provincial capital, where a delegation from the Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi and Abu Dhabi Ports was met by more than 180 government agency representatives and 90 Chinese companies looking to invest in Abu Dhabi. The recent announcement that East Hope Group is considering a $10 billion investment in the Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi indicates that the Jiangsu cooperation is not the only Chinese player in Khalifa port, but its established presence will continue to provide a platform for deeper cooperation between the UAE and China.
Saudi Arabia’s Jazan City for Primary and Downstream Industries has not seen the same level of attention or investment yet. Thus far the only major investment has been a petrochemical plant, valued at nearly $4 billion, from Guangzhou’s Pan-Asia PET Resin Co. If the Duqm and Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi pattern holds, more firms from southern Guangdong province are likely to begin hanging their shingles in Jazan.
The scope and scale of the BRI combined with fuzzy definitions of what constitutes a Belt and Road project adds to the perception of it as a catch-all slogan for opportunistic state-owned and private companies to latch on to. For many Chinese companies operating in the Gulf designating a project as part of the BRI seems like a branding exercise. These park-port complexes, however, show the growing relevance of the BRI on the Arabian Peninsula and suggest the building of a much deeper level of Chinese engagement and influence in the region.