China’s footprint in the Middle East is expanding, and there is little reason to think that will change as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine. In some ways, the war may serve to enhance its sphere of influence, while also hampering it in other ways.
Although the war has most directly affected Ukraine and its people, constantly exposing them to death, physical destruction, and an unfolding humanitarian/refugee crisis, it has also had wider repercussions for both neighboring countries and the world at large.
Among such consequences are rising energy prices witnessed around the globe. Between December 2021 and March 2022, oil prices jumped from around $70 to $120 per barrel, caused in part by Western sanctions against Russia. This decision ultimately benefited oil and gas producers in the Gulf by providing them with more revenue. It has also meant less wheat exports and skyrocketing prices across the board (up by a third since the start of the year), which will affect countries that rely on such products, like Egypt.
Rising energy prices and grain scarcity also spell trouble for China, and are perhaps the most immediate challenges presently facing this nation.
As the world’s second largest economy, China is heavily reliant on oil and gas imports, much of which comes from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Oman. Additionally, while rice is one of the nation’s staple foods, Chinese consumption and food security demands have prompted it to increase its imports. At the same time, however, China has been able to offset the pressure of rising prices.
In recent years, especially following the American withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal and the reimposition of sanctions, Chinese buyers have been purchasing discounted Iranian oil through third parties. China has also signaled its willingness to buy Russian oil on terms favorable to both parties. In this way, China’s refusal to condemn Moscow for instigating the war (or even acknowledge the conflict as such) has greatly benefited Russia.
As for wheat, although China has been buying more in recent years, it still produces the vast majority of the grains that it currently consumes. Beyond immediate economic concerns, the Ukraine War may even enhance China’s political presence in the region, albeit at Russia’s expense.
After 2011, Moscow’s influence in the region was at an all-time high. President Vladimir Putin’s decision to directly intervene in the Syrian War in 2015 helped that government stabilize and recover large parts of its territory. In Libya, Russian private security contractors with links to the state, such as the Wagner Group, reinforced Khalifa Haftar’s military confrontation against Tripoli. Russia used its presence in these theatres as leverage, presenting itself as a potential mediator in Yemen, promoting arms sales to Turkey and the Gulf states, and fostering wider economic and diplomatic influence across the region.
Russia’s failure to inflict a swift and decisive knock-out in Ukraine has arguably damaged its image. As the conflict has devolved into a war of attrition, Russia has had to reduce its military footprint in Syria and Libya and consider pulling foreign investments as resources return home to help domestic production.
All of this leaves the space wide open for China to step in. Even before the war, China was already a much larger economic presence in the region than Russia. This could be seen through its investments in large-scale infrastructure and economic diversification projects, such as renewable energy in parts of the Middle East, most especially the Gulf.
Now with Russia’s reputation and capacity for regional projection compromised, Chinese firms may face less competition in some countries and areas than before. One such area may be the arms market, as the Ukraine War may force Russia to reduce sales abroad. Although the US made up almost half of all weapons sales in the Middle East between 2000-2019, Russia was the second largest supplier, accounting for 19% of all the region’s sales. If Russian exports do fall, that could benefit Chinese arms companies, whose share in the market did not rise above 2.5% during the same period.
China’s replacement of Russia in this field would only complement the broader developments taking shape in the region’s international relations.
Although many countries in the Middle East, like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, are American allies or partners, these governments recognize that the world is becoming more multipolar at the regional and global levels. Therefore, it is important to cultivate relations with everyone as a way to improve relations with others, while also minimizing any misunderstanding or risk. Consequently, regional states have been keen on engaging nations like Russia and China, both of which are seen as challengers to the still predominately liberal global order.
Against this backdrop is another scenario that could be detrimental for China. If the Ukraine War does diminish its influence and scope for agitation in the Middle East, then Russia will ultimately vanish as the West’s principal regional threat. This could potentially cast more light on China instead, thereby bringing the recent competition between China and the West into greater focus. For example, both the Trump and Biden administrations have increased pressure on Israel to reduce its cooperation with China, and Washington has sought to do the same with the UAE within the last year.
In conclusion, China’s prospects in the Middle East during and after the Ukraine War remain mixed. Given that China stepped up its engagement in the region before the fighting started and plays no part in the present hostilities, it is unlikely that Chinese expansion in the Middle East will be checked. On the other hand, developments beyond the war itself, including the economic fallout and pre-existing geopolitical rivalries, could potentially impair China’s regional status and cause the nation to be pulled in several different directions.
Guy Burton is Adjunct Professor at the Brussels School of Governance and the author of China and Middle East Conflicts (Routledge, 2020) and Rising Powers and the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Lexington, 2018). He has previously held research and teaching posts in Palestine, Iraq, Malaysia, and Dubai, at the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government.