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China has a Growing Presence in Arab Hearts and Minds

Merissa Khurma

Many Arabs see China as a friend. Chinese state television promotes economic relations with the region while contrasting political stances with the West. As Chinese and local media maintain this narrative, views of the power will remain largely positive.

China Mall
November 30, 2016: China mall in the city of Ajman, United Arab Emirates.

Growing up in the Middle East in the 1980s, the first references to China I heard glorified its imperial past and elevated its place in history as a bastion of knowledge, science, and technology. In mandatory religion classes, the Prophet Mohammad’s saying to “seek knowledge as far as China” was often highlighted. But modern-day China was not so much a topic of conversation in our living rooms, and even more rarely in our classrooms, particularly outside the context of Cold War history.

The picture could not be more different today where both the younger and older generations across the region are much more exposed to China, its economic might, competition with the United States and the West, and technologies like 5G. CGTV Arabic has been live streaming Chinese news, dramas, and other shows into millions of homes across the region. A national Chinese project, the channel launched in the UAE 2009 costing more than $4 billion USD. CGTV is China’s soft power tool in the Arab world, home to more than 450 million people. So how has it impacted perceptions of China?

A positive reputation

In the Arab Barometer’s survey of nine countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) that includes 23,000 interviews, “China remains more popular than the US,” with Morocco being the only exception where the US is more popular overall. In another survey of more than 50 cities across the region focused on Arab youth, including in the UAE, a key economic partner to China, the vast majority of interviewees identified China as a key ally to their nation.

The Chinese emphasize in their coverage that their country has not been militarily involved in the Arab world, unlike the United States.

That is not at all surprising given the narrative China amplifies in the region. First, the Chinese emphasize in their coverage that their country has not been militarily involved in the Arab world, unlike the United States. Further, coverage is very much focused on the Chinese economic success story and the economic cooperation between China and the region. The figures that the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning shared in December 2022 ahead of the Arab-China Summit helps explain why the economic narrative trumps all.

Ms. Mao Ning noted that in the last ten years, China-Arab economic and trade cooperation has “scaled new heights” with her country becoming the Arab states’ biggest trading partner. She added that in 2021, China’s foreign direct investment in Arab states reached “$23 billion, 2.6 times increase over 10 years,” and the trade volume topped $330 billion. Saudi Arabia tops the Arab states in its trade relationship with China; the Kingdom is China’s biggest supplier of crude oil. Further, at the Arab-China Summit in Riyadh, the two countries signed a total of 34 investment agreements in multiple sectors including green energy, medical industries, transport, and information technology, among others.

China versus the West

In addition to the economic story that captivates many in the region, CGTV’s content is also very critical of the United States, judging from political cartoons and the way political developments in America are framed. These messages resonate with many people that very much view the United States through its foreign policy in MENA, especially the war in Iraq and its unwavering support for Israel, which the majority see as an occupier of Palestinian land.

As one official from the Chinese Media Center noted, “Outwardly for the purpose of China boosting its image, China presents itself as a responsible stakeholder in the Palestinian cause.” He added, “China presents itself as the champion of the global south.” In fact, its coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is mostly limited to its Arabic and English channel rather than its news coverage in Chinese.

Beyond the Palestinian issue, Chinese news in Arabic highlights how it supports 'Arab solidarity' and 'Arab self-determination.'

Beyond the Palestinian issue, Chinese news in Arabic highlights how it supports “Arab solidarity” and “Arab self-determination.” In response to the political development concerning re-admitting Syria to the Arab League, CGTV’s Arabic news noted that China “supports with enthusiasm Syria’s return to the Arab League,” noting that China will do its utmost to strengthen Arab unity as it stands to be a “faithful friend to Syria and other Arab states.”

The CGTV Arabic website also contains a permanent feature on the China-Arab Summit. Upon clicking the banner, presented front and center, you are taken to news stories on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meetings with Arab leaders, a Chinese-Arabic song that celebrates Sino-Arab relations, and stories on joint Chinese-Arab projects to “create miracles in the desert”—an enormous water tank in Qatar, fields for animal fodder in Mauritania, reclaimed dessert in Egypt.

These headlines reflect Beijing’s goals very clearly: China is engaged in the Arab world, it is a friend, it is an economic partner, and it supports “Arab unity” and “solidarity,” which represent the mantra of Pan-Arabism.

No expectations for human rights

Further, beyond the narrative that China propagates in the region, its complete disregard for human rights and individual freedoms seems to attract many regional governments.

"Many governments and business leaders in MENA believe that China is a good, reliable, apolitical partner that can provide them with technology and trade without the human rights and politicized Western strings attached,” noted Jiangi Yang, a Chinese scholar and human rights activist. He added, “China can provide them with surveillance equipment, arms as well as consumer goods while ignoring human rights abuses and exploitation of workers in different countries.”

When it comes to the people of the region, Yang notes that, like in most countries around the world, people “regard China as a provider of sub-standard yet affordable goods compared to the West and because the Chinese leaders are not vocal about politics and policies in general, most ordinary people do not have a political opinion about China one way or another."

Western governments including the US have accused China of crimes against humanity in its treatment of the Uyghurs, while the governments of MENA remained silent or dismissed it all together.

One notable “Muslim issue” that perhaps should have impacted views on China is its abuse of the Uyghurs, a population of around 12 million mostly Muslim people living in the Eastern Xinjiang province. While international human rights organizations and Western governments including the United States have accused China of crimes against humanity in its treatment of the Uyghurs, the governments and leadership of MENA remained silent or dismissed it all together.

In response to a question on the treatment of the Uyghurs and relations with China at the Wilson Center, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri noted that his country applies itself “without any form of interference in the internal affairs of China,” adding that Egypt has confidence every country can aptly address issues pertaining to its own citizens. In fact, Egypt, together with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and other Muslim-majority states helped to block a Western motion at the United Nations calling for China to allow international observers into the Xinjiang region in 2019.

According to several China-Middle East experts, the Uyghur issue is “not a major dot on the radar for most Middle Easterners and, to the degree that Middle Eastern observers (whether officials or citizens) are closely following developments, it just doesn't register as a top foreign policy priority.” One reason is that regional leaders and businesses see relations with China as “far too valuable to imperil by making the Uyghurs an important facet of bilateral relations.” Further, akin to CGTV covering mostly economic ties, local media in MENA are also focusing on the “economic dimension of relations more than anything.”

China’s short shadow

Tarek Osman, an Egyptian historian and author, elucidates anger that erupts in the region in response to what are seen as attacks on Islam in the West “entails in it anger against the West itself,” which he further explains is an “accumulation of centuries of frustration…” When it comes to China, Osman adds, this “historical baggage does not exist in the collective Arab idea of China. On the contrary, there are elements of affinity in the distant history, and elements of friendship in the recent one.” Osman notes that the local and regional media play a role. “A lot of what has been taking place in China gets quite limited coverage in Arab media, while on the other hand, actions seen as against Islam in the West receive massive media attention...”

With China’s most recent diplomatic maneuvers in MENA, especially brokering the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it may be entering the political arena of the region. However, it remains to be seen how these gestures will impact perceptions. While the narrative on China and the United States or the West at large is controlled by regional and local media outlets across MENA and similarly on CGTV, Arab perceptions of China are likely to remain largely positive, or at least neutral.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Wilson Center.

About the Author

Merissa Khurma

Merissa Khurma

Director, Middle East Program
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The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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The Kissinger Institute works to ensure that China policy serves American long-term interests and is founded in understanding of historical and cultural factors in bilateral relations and in accurate assessment of the aspirations of China’s government and people.  Read more