Geopolitics

China And The Middle East, Autocracies Intertwined

Amid growing ties, the youths of the Arab Spring could come between Beijing and its local partners

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi wave to a crowd in Beijing
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi wave to a crowd in Beijing
Francesca Paci

-Analysis-

CAIRO â€" Ramadan is upon us, and Muslims looking for lanterns or gadgets for the holiday season in the bazaars of Tunis, Amman and East Jerusalem are buying Chinese.

"Made in China" products have become increasingly prolifice throughout the Middle East, and in the West Bank city of Hebron, it's hard to find families that still locally manufacture their traditional Palestinian keffiyehs, or scarves. The legendary Khan el-Khalili souk in the heart of Cairo's Islamic district â€" where for centuries travelers from around the world came to bargain on prices for carpets, jewels and spices â€" is a symbol of the radical changes convulsing the local manufacturing economy. Cairo's few remaining foreign tourists can still find incredible deals at the souk, but prices for clothing made with prized Egyptian cotton have risen to European levels in a market awash with cheap Chinese imports.

In the last decade, trade between China and the Middle East grew by 600%, and is now worth $230 billion. China is the primary source of imports for Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and also the largest export partner for Iran, Oman and â€" again â€" the Saudis.

In April, Qatar opened the first Arab bank dedicated to transactions in Chinese RMB currency, a move designed to reduce the Gulf's reliance on the American dollar.

The interests of the Far and Middle East are clearly converging. Beijing became the world's largest oil importer this year, and it's continuously searching for new sources of black gold. More than three million barrels a day â€" half its total imports â€" come from the Middle East. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), China's oil needs will double by 2035, making it the world's largest consumer of the fossil fuel.

The Khan al-Khalili souk in Cairo, Egypt â€" Photo: Ian Cumming/Axiom/ZUMA

No strings attached

With their large young populations eager to consume foreign goods, Middle Eastern nations have their own reasons for looking east. China is a formidable producer of motorbikes, clothes, small arms, telecommunications and everything in between, all in high demand in the Arab world. What's more, these goods are offered at extremely low prices and without any Western-style complaints about human rights, a very sensitive topic in the region. Analysts agree that the much-vaunted "new Silk Road" Chinese President Xi Jinping launched in 2013 is far from geopolitical fiction.

The ingredients for a new era of Chinese soft power in the Muslim world are already present. There's oil, which no longer flows mainly in the direction of the United States, whose imports from the Gulf fell by 600,000 barrels a day between 2000 and 2011 and are projected to fall to a meager 100,000 a day by 2035, down from 1.9 million in 2011.

There's also the lure of economic development without political strings attached. As a final incentive, there's Beijing's peculiar neutrality in regional affairs, which has often led it to play both sides in international crises. China opposed the 2003 Iraq war and vetoed the 2012 UN resolution against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but it has improved business ties with Israel while maintaining good relations with the Palestinians and even offered to mediate peace talks between the two foes.

Similarly, Beijing continues to have solid ties with Riyadh and signed commercial agreements worth $50 billion with Iran, all the while keeping its seat in the group of nations negotiating a nuclear agreement with Tehran. Chinese companies are working on new lines for the Tehran Metro, building highways in Saudi Arabia, and enlarging the Suez Canal and constructing new ports in Egypt.

In the last three years Arab despots, old and new alike, have been falling over one another in a rush to make visits to China. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is the most notable example, signing a $10 billion contract for public works on his trip to Beijing late last year. For now China's leaders are opting not to travel in the opposite direction, cautiously avoiding potential Western reprisals or public protests from the youths that sparked the Arab Spring.

Put simply, China represents minimum effort for maximum gain: When Beijing invests, it never comments on its partners' political situations. The country isn't even a member of the international coalition fighting ISIS, although it ferociously persecutes and represses the Muslim Uyghur population of its own region of Xinjiang under the pretense of combating terrorism. China is immune to the identity crisis that is infecting the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea after having swept southern Europe.


Still, everything has a price in the long term. While Middle Eastern governments enjoy cozy relations with their Chinese counterparts, their citizens are happy to purchase the new ally's consumer goods. But there's a darker side.

After Beijing's decision to veto a resolution calling for military action against the Assad regime in 2012, many Syrian rebels and demonstrators in Arab capitals burned Chinese flags in protest. This is in stark contrast to Europe, where anti-government protesters set American or Israeli flags ablaze instead. The young people who took to the streets in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011 to topple their oppressive governments held photographs of their peers who overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, but also of their fallen comrades in Tiananmen Square.

Western democracies can't seem to understand why freedom and economic well-being aren't enough to placate their restless populations. So how can China be so sure that material prosperity will be enough for its own citizens? The youth of the Middle East are disheartened by the authoritarian shift in their region since the Arab Spring, but they have not given up on their dream. The end of this history has yet to be written, and the future is more open than ever.

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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