China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

China and the UAE: Birds of a Feather?

The burgeoning relationship is driven by mutual self-interest and a shared embrace of the “noninterference” doctrine.

Bonnie Girard
China and the UAE: Birds of a Feather?

Chinese President Xi Jinping, receives by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, at the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, July 20, 2018.

Credit: AP Photo/Malak Harb

It is evident upon arrival at Dubai International Airport that the concerns many Western nations have about the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei are not shared by the United Arab Emirates. Advertisements for Huawei’s products are plastered throughout the airport, in English and in Arabic.

Indeed, the presence of China in Dubai, the most commercial of the seven Emirati states, is everywhere.

In Dubai one encounters a quickly growing Chinese involvement in investment, farming, trading, education, tourism, and finance.

The relationship has not been without its critics. But in a passionate editorial in The National, Abu Dhabi’s English-language daily newspaper, on May 30 of this year, Chinese Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates Ni Jian used strong arguments and historical references to defend the nature and well-being of the relationship between the UAE and the PRC.

The historical ties between the two countries are long-standing. The Silk Road of old brought merchants from both regions together in trade and more. Even today, the legacy of the human interaction between Chinese and Arab traders can be seen along the Chinese portion of the Silk Road. Xi’an, home to the terracotta warriors, boasts many faces that would seem more at home in Baghdad or Beirut than in a north-central Chinese province.

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But these historical ties may be more of a transactional tool to the Chinese than they are a heartfelt sense of “brotherhood,” as Ambassador Ni would like to suggest.

China’s interest in the UAE and the Gulf States is no more complicated than the interest which other nations have had in the region for decades: oil.

Maintaining and protecting a steady, reliable source of oil, given China’s now insatiable thirst for it, is crucial for the ongoing development of China’s economy. China imports a major share of its crude from the Middle East.  In 2018, of the $240 billion worth of oil China imported, $103, nearly 43 percent, came from just six Middle Eastern countries.

As the U.S. Energy Information Administration says, “The Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important oil chokepoint because of the large volumes of oil that flow through the strait. In 2018, its daily oil flow averaged 21 million barrels per day (b/d), or the equivalent of about 21% of global petroleum liquids consumption.”

The UAE sits on the western tip of that chokepoint.

By building relationships with Gulf states such as the UAE through the Belt and Road mechanism of investment in infrastructure and logistics, China hopes to solidify its continuing share in the spoils of the oil-rich region.

That China can use that relationship to further logistics capabilities supporting its political and economic investments in Africa is a bonus.

For its part, the UAE greatly admires China, judging by an interview on Chinese CCTV in early November with His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai.

In that interview, the sheikh says, “More than 10 years ago…I said that…China will lead the global economy… There are many points of convergence between China and the UAE and this is why we consider China an exemplar model.”

He goes on to say, “I respect the Chinese President, I have met with him more than once and I see him as an exemplary model of leadership, if only some leaders would learn from him. Thanks to him, China today has many friends and it is he who lead this openness.”

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Xi Jinping has been called many things by many people, both good and bad, but “open” isn’t usually one of them.

Unfortunately, some of the traits which China and the UAE share are those which distinguish them from large swathes of the international community. Neither country has a democratically-elected government. In the UAE, the formation of political parties is banned; in China, there is only one party that counts.

And in the UAE, China has a like-minded friend in its policy of noninterference in the sovereign affairs of others.

In July, China publicly thanked the UAE for supporting its repressive policies toward the Muslim Uyghur population in its northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang.

The Chinese attempt to frame their policy of noninterference in other sovereign nations’ business as an ethical approach to diplomacy. Indeed, they often imply and sometimes state outright that it is a more ethical standard than that of certain Western countries, by which is usually meant the United States.

But China’s policy of noninterference is actually a manifestation of a passive-aggressive approach to diplomacy that seeks economic benefit from its bilateral and regional economic ties while running for cover when political troubles arise.

The policy may also be seen as cynical. By offering noninterference, China expects it in return. And in that, China has a perfect ally in the UAE.

The UAE’s welcome of China is also underscored by the renminbi’s rise as the currency of debt in the UAE and many of its neighbors.

As the Atlantic Council notes in a report, “Renminbi (RMB)-denominated issuance in the Gulf hit a record high in 2018…Within these flows, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the largest issuer of RMB debt, followed by Qatar.”

The Council report goes on to say that “prominent Emirati banks, specifically Emirates NBD and First Abu Dhabi Bank, have led the country’s issuance in RMB bonds. Most recently in 2018, the Emirate of Sharjah issued an RMB-denominated international bond, suggesting more flows to come in the future.” The suggestion, the report implies, is that such bonds “curry favor with Beijing.”

And while the United States and other Western nations are warily eyeing the role of Confucius Institutes on university campuses, the UAE has opened its arms to two of them. Plus, an “ongoing initiative to teach Chinese in 200 UAE schools” is underway.

Chinese tourism, according to one Western-brand hotel in the Bur Juman embassy district of Dubai, is increasing rapidly. Bolstered by a mutual visa-free agreement between the two countries, citizens of both can move freely between the two. Chinese tour operators are contracting with hotels to supply blocks of rooms for a growing number of Chinese tourist groups.

The level of sincerity in the state-to-state relationship between China and the UAE might easily be called into question. What cannot be questioned is that, for the moment, both sides are getting something out of it.