On the occasion of the 9th China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) Ministerial Meeting, United Arab Emirates' Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan expressed his satisfaction for the joint China-Arab states cooperation and his support to expand the relationship to broader horizons. While making keen references to the BRI-associated investments in the region, Minister bin Zayed attached a special importance to China-UAE joint cooperation in developing a vaccine against the new coronavirus.
The meeting was held on-line, as Jordan assumed the presidency of CASCF, amid unprecedented conditions given by the on-going pandemic. It was co-chaired by the Jordanian Foreign Minister, Ayman Al-Safadi and the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi. The Secretary General of the Arab States League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Foreign Ministers of the member states, as well as other high dignitaries, participated at the meeting.
As China and UAE celebrate 35 years of establishing diplomatic relations, the importance of UAE as a Chinese gateway to the Gulf region becomes obvious.
Firstly, a clear signal in this direction was given a year ago, when Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, paid a three-day visit to China, where he met the Chinese President Xi Jinping. Besides reviewing ways to increase the bilateral cooperation, the two leaders also discussed regional and international issues of mutual interest. The visit materialised in ten agreements of economic, oil and environmental cooperation between the two countries. The previous year, in 2018, Xi Jinping became the first Chinese President to visit UAE, which led to an over 30% year-on-year growth in UAE's exports to China.
Secondly, with a total population of only 1.4 million Emirati citizens, UAE hosts over 200,000 Chinese, most of whom live in Dubai, working in industries ranging from oil, construction and retail. 6,000 Chinese companies were operating in Dubai as of 2019.
Thirdly, a joint investment project worth $2.4 billion with China's Zhejiang Commodity City Group Company (CCC) in the Jebel Ali port, is epected to increase the number of Chinese citizens in the country and similarly export its goods in the Gulf Region and beyond. In fact, all six members of the Gulf Cooperation Countries became part of the Belt & Road Initiative. UAE's role in facilitating China's access to the region has been similarly aknowledged by CCC's chairman, Zhao Wenge: "“The Middle-East/Africa region is critical for the Belt & Road Initiative, and we aim to serve this high-growth market through the Traders Market in Jebel Ali, Dubai”.
Another Chinese company, East Hope Group, is currently cooperating with the Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi (KIZAD) on a 15-year development project in non-ferrous metal processing facility in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. In exchange, KIZAD acknowledged the Chinese company was granted "best utility prices" and land at the nearby port. If materialized, the project will witness a whopping $10 billion dollar investment on behalf of the Chinese conglomerate.
Similarly, Chinese company Roadbot already made a $614 million investment in a tire plant at Kizad park. China's state-owned enterprise Cosco Shipping Ports already inaugurated a hub at the port of Khalifa, which could work as a gateway for the Chinese exports to all GCC countries.
Only in Dubai, Chinese investors bought property worth over $4 billion by 2018, ranking top 5 in investor nationality, according to Dubai Land Department. Over 1 million Chinese tourists visited the Emirates only in 2019.
Despite the novel coronavirus pandemic being expected to curve private Chinese investors' enthusiasm in Dubai, it is less likely the same could be said about the Chinese state-owned-companies.
Whether the outstanding cooperation between China and UAE will have effects in the political spectrum is yet to be witnessed. So far, pragmatic appeals have been issued by the Emirati side. At the CASCF Ministerial Meeting, Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah called for a (security) cooperation with China that would alleviate "human suffering on the peoples of the region, especially the Palestinians, in addition to the Libyan, Yemeni and Syrian crisis."
So far, the Chinese side offered diplomatic support with regard to the settlement at the International Court of Justice of the Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tund islands, currently disputed between UAE and Iran. China, on the other hand, refused to join the UAE-based EU-initiated Operation Agenor, which sees naval patrols protecting oil tankers in the Hormuz Strait and the Persian Gulf, despite being the largest oil importer in the world.
In fact, on a geostrategic level, Chinese investments in the Middle East emphasize a strategic dichotomy: on one hand, China sees the Emirates as a gateway to the region, on the other hand, China's privileged relation with the resource-rich Iran figures high in terms of national energy security. Moreover, recent signals from Beijing indicated China may resume its arms supply to Tehran.
How would this impact the relation with the UAE and for how long will China maintain this GCC-Iran dichotomy in the Middle East is a question that would perhaps take another Ministerial Meeting to address.
* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the official policy, position or view of the Romanian Institute for Europe-Asia Studies - IRSEA or any of its partners.