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Coronavirus Strengthens China’s Ties to Mideast

Financial interests seen as being behind change, according to expert    

On May 31, Jordan received $750,000 worth of medical aid from the People’s Republic of China to fight COVID-19.

The donation underscores the way the relationship between China and the Middle East has been bolstered during the pandemic. This stands in stark relief to the ties between Beijing and Washington as tempers flare over just who is responsible for more than 6 million infections worldwide.

Jonathan Fulton, assistant professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, has written extensively about China-Middle East relations and says the donation “further established” Beijing as a provider of aid to the region.

“It builds upon the outreach it has made throughout the Middle East during the pandemic, which has helped improve its image after the initial outbreak in Wuhan,” he told The Media Line. “It also provides China with an opportunity to demonstrate its usefulness as a partner, having established a strategic partnership with Jordan in 2015.”

Fulton argues that China’s actions are filling a vacuum left by the United States, which has reduced its profile in the Middle East.

“While in the past, MENA [Middle East/North Africa] countries would have expected aid and support to come from the US, the domestic political situation there, combined with its dismal response to COVID-19, means they have to look elsewhere,” he explained. “China has taken advantage of this lack of leadership from Washington to improve its standing in the region.”

Dr. Mordechai Chaziza, a senior lecturer in the Department of Politics and Governance at Ashkelon Academic College in Israel, and author of China and the Persian Gulf: The New Silk Road Strategy and Emerging Partnerships, says Beijing has been making inroads to Middle Eastern countries other than Jordan, while nations in the region helped China itself at the onset of the outbreak.

“At least for now, the relationships between China and Middle Eastern states are close and supportive in both directions,” he told The Media Line.

Chaziza notes that Qatar Airways flew over 300 tons of health supplies to Beijing, while the Saudis agreed in February to six different shipments of medical aid. Israel sent masks and 200 complete sets of personal protective equipment, including items like outer suits, goggles and shoes.

In the other direction, Chinese medical professionals have been teaching coronavirus best practices to counterparts in the United Arab Emirates, while Beijing has provided a laboratory for testing in Iraq.

“The PRC will likely continue to provide medical equipment and aid to those Middle Eastern countries that want it,” he stated, explaining that the bottom line plays a major role in motivating both sides.

“Economic considerations very much influence the underlying calculation behind the positive interaction of Middle Eastern states with China,” he said.

“Given the economic weight of Beijing and its position in the global supply chain, as well as being a leading trading partner for the Middle East and its role as the world’s largest oil importer and consumer,” he went on, “Middle Eastern states need China to return to normalcy as quickly as possible.”

While Chaziza argues that it is too soon to understand the long-term impact of the coronavirus on China-Middle East relations, he posits that that both sides can boost that bottom line.

“Once the coronavirus is brought under control, countries still struggling to rebound from the related economic shocks could use the outbreak as an excuse to abandon unsuccessful or politically unpopular projects with China,” he said. “Conversely, Beijing may find new opportunities to expand its footprint in countries seeking to foster economic development.”

Zayed University’s Fulton believes that the pandemic will increase Beijing’s influence in the region.

“In countries like the UAE, where they have relatively dense levels of cooperation, this will make for stronger ties,” he said. “In countries like Jordan, where China has less of a presence, it will likely create a foundation for more cooperation.”