Amid growing ties, the youths of the Arab Spring could come between Beijing and its local partners
CAIRO — 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 — where for centuries travelers from around the world came to bargain on prices for carpets, jewels and spices — 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 — again — 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 — half its total imports — 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 — 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.