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Political Factors Complicate China's Clout in Mideast

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Political Factors Complicate China's Clout in Mideast

Political Factors Complicate China's Clout in Mideast

Political Factors Complicate China's Clout in Mideast

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89385642/89388151" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The fifth in a seven-part series.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, shown in a 2007 file photo. i

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, shown in a 2007 file photo, made China his first foreign visit as leader of the world's largest oil producer. Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, shown in a 2007 file photo.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, shown in a 2007 file photo, made China his first foreign visit as leader of the world's largest oil producer.

Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

Series Overview:
China's Influence

Every day seems to bring a new statistic about China: It has become the world's third-largest trading nation, it has the most cell phone subscribers in the world and it emits the most carbon gases.

Some media refer to this growing influence as the rise of China. Chinese people see this as their country's rightful return to the dominant position it occupied in Asia for much of the past 2,000 years. Read more about NPR's seven-part series exploring China's role in the world.

A vendor waits for customers at a shop selling Chinese goods at Dragon Mart in Dubai. i

A vendor waits for customers at a shop selling Chinese goods at Dragon Mart in Dubai. Officials say the 1.6 million-square-foot shopping complex may be the largest Chinese trading hub outside mainland China. Nasser Younes/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Nasser Younes/AFP/Getty Images
A vendor waits for customers at a shop selling Chinese goods at Dragon Mart in Dubai.

A vendor waits for customers at a shop selling Chinese goods at Dragon Mart in Dubai. Officials say the 1.6 million-square-foot shopping complex may be the largest Chinese trading hub outside mainland China.

Nasser Younes/AFP/Getty Images

When Saudi Arabia's newly crowned King Abdullah set off on his first foreign visit as leader of the largest oil producer on the planet a few years ago, his destination was not the world's largest oil importer and only superpower, the United States. Instead, in what some saw as a harbinger of a new era, he visited China.

And while the king has his own plane, he followed a popular route: There are now at least twice as many flights between the Gulf region and China than there are between the Gulf and the United States.

With a booming economy fueling a voracious demand for energy, China is soon expected to eclipse the United States as the leading oil importer — with the majority of that oil coming from the Middle East.

China's rise is coming at a time when the U.S. economy is struggling and the U.S. image is badly tarnished in the Middle East. That has some Western analysts talking about a historic shift to the East, but those in the Gulf region say that's not happened just yet.

Controversial Ties

Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates are all shipping huge amounts of oil to China. As China's energy appetite has grown, Beijing increasingly values its ties with the oil-rich and relatively stable countries in the Gulf.

But hunger for oil also has pushed China to seek out ties in a number of the world's trouble spots: Angola, Nigeria, Sudan and Iran. China's economic interests in Sudan and Iran in particular sometimes put it at odds with the West, and China has been forced to modify, at least somewhat, its desire to keep its focus on trade and not politics.

After long ignoring the atrocities of government-backed militias in western Sudan, China recently has begun prodding the government in Khartoum and rebel groups to negotiate. China also has endorsed three United Nations Security Council resolutions sanctioning Iran over its nuclear program.

But those shifts have not been reflected in Beijing's trade and economic policies on the ground. Its new rhetoric notwithstanding, China remains Sudan's biggest weapons supplier, and in Tehran, foreign ministry official Ali Rezaiee told NPR that Chinese investment in Iran is booming despite the U.N. resolutions.

"You know, it's interesting to see all those investments and issues are intact," he says. "They have their own business with us. At the same time, they are under too much pressure from the U.S. side."

But it's not just Washington that's unhappy with China's strengthening economic ties to Iran. Analyst Mustafa Alani at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai says China may soon be forced to sacrifice some of its interests in Iran if it wants to maintain good ties with the Arab world and access to its oil.

"I think the Chinese must understand our deep concern related to the Iranian nuclear program," Alani says. "This is not a marginal issue; this is a major issue here in the region. If China wants to emerge as a major power in the region supplying 60 percent of Chinese energy, they must understand the relation of buyer and seller will not last for long."

'Not a Mature Power'

Alani says the atmosphere in the region is one of extreme uncertainty, with the U.S. image badly damaged by the invasion of Iraq and the ensuing rise of Iran. Some are looking to China to step in, but for now Alani remains skeptical.

"Certainly in the region we feel the United States losing credibility, and we feel that in the near future we're going to see a vacuum in the region," he says. "But we still believe the Chinese [are] not a mature power: Politically, it's still really very weak; strategically, it still is not trusted. We don't feel China is a replacement to United States in any sense."

But economically, the shift is well under way. For centuries, imperial China and the Mideast had thriving economic ties as goods traveled back and forth along the Silk Road. Then, in the mid-20th century, communist China served as an ideological model, and sometimes arms supplier, to Arab nationalists and socialists in the region.

"In the old days, there was a strong admiration for China. We were going through the Algerian revolution and then the Palestinian resistance and what have you, and China was looked on like an inspiration," says Walid Kazziha, who heads the political science department at American University in Cairo.

But analyst Abdel Moneim Said at the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies says that today the message from China is not one of egalitarian redistribution of power and wealth, but quite the opposite.

"Actually, China is giving two bad lessons to the Middle East," he says. "Number one: Violating human rights has nothing to do with development; you can have both. The second is that highly centralized political power does not mean necessarily an impediment for progress. ... Usually China is used as an example against local reformers."

Economic Allure

That model is one that democracy advocates loathe. But the economic allure of the new China is impossible to ignore, which is perhaps nowhere more obvious than at Dragon Mart in the United Arab Emirates.

The 1.6 million-square-foot shopping complex, nearly three-quarters of a mile long, sprawls more or less in the shape of a dragon along the Dubai-Oman Highway. Inside, some 4,000 Chinese firms offer everything from children's toys and "Double Happiness" cigarettes to forklifts and heavy machinery. Officials say it may be the largest Chinese trading hub outside mainland China.

At the same time, Mideast investors finding it harder to conduct business in the United States are increasingly sending their money east. Dubai-based DP World, burned by a political backlash in the United States after it acquired American port holdings, is now funding a half-billion-dollar port project in China. Tens of billions of dollars' worth of oil projects are under way. Inexpensive Chinese cars are selling as fast as they arrive in Egypt, and, to the dismay of Egyptian craftspeople, most pharaonic souvenirs now come with a "Made in China" sticker.

One Gulf economist predicts that regional investment in Asia, including China, could reach a quarter of a trillion dollars within five years. But many of these oil-rich states will be watching China's evolving Mideast policy carefully, hoping that Beijing recognizes that it will have problems becoming and remaining an economic superpower if it doesn't pay more attention to political relations in this sensitive and complicated corner of the world.

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