Solidarity and Strain: China and the Middle East During COVID-19
The novel coronavirus has made the long journey from the central Chinese town of Wuhan to the countries of the MENA region, killing tens of thousands worldwide and decimating the global economy along the way. For the past thirty years, China has been cultivating closer ties with the Middle East driven by a need for energy resources to power its rise. The only Chinese state policy paper on the Arab world calls this relationship “win-win cooperation,” a ubiquitous phrase in Chinese diplomacy. COVID-19, the tie that unwillingly binds both China and the Middle East, has brought an outpouring of mutual solidarity from MENA countries and China in both aid and media slogans. However, the pandemic has widened existing cracks in this partnership; cracks that threaten the so-far unchallenged trend of increasingly friendly ties between China and the Middle East.
When China was first struck by the coronavirus, one of its immediate mitigation strategies was crafting the narrative surrounding the crisis to reinforce confidence in the communist government. On the international scene, the Middle East has been a subject to Arabic-language media campaigns in efforts to maintain Chinese ties with the region as COVID-19 tensions worsen. China’s forays into the Arabic language are by no means new. The People’s Republic has been seriously pursuing Arabic and multiple Chinese state media outlets have been running Arabic-language content since the early 2000s. But in the early days of the crisis, Arabic-language Chinese media was populated with stories of Arab residents of China who were confident in a swift recovery and the strength of Chinese leadership. In March when Beijing and Washington began sparring over President Trump’s use of “the Chinese virus,” Arabic-language articles and commentary abounded condemning the United States, criticizing its coronavirus response, and charging the U.S. with human rightsabuses. Arabic-language Chinese state media also shared a WeChat post that propagated the conspiracy theory that the novel coronavirus originated in the United States. Media that criticizes the US, particularly media with conspiracy theories, often finds fertile ground in Middle Eastern audiences. As the international scrutiny grew over reported discrimination towards foreigners in China, an Arabic article reported that “citizens and foreigners face equal quarantine measures.” China wants the Middle East on its side.
On the international scene, the Middle East has been a subject to Arabic-language media campaigns in efforts to maintain Chinese ties with the region as COVID-19 tensions worsen.
One of China’s strategies to inspire solidarity in the Arab world has been to tell the stories of medical workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus. An Arabic music video called “Shadow of the Angels” (“ظل الملائكة”) that made the rounds on officialChinese diplomatic social media accounts is a prime example. This video appeared the day after China observed a national day of mourning to those lost to COVID-19, an occasion that elicited a tweet from Emirati leader Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed. The video is accompanied by a bevy of Arabic hashtags such as #معا_ضد_كورونا(#Together_Against_Coronavirus) and #ابطال_الصحة (#Health_Heroes). In the video, Chinese and Arab people sing in Arabic of the struggles medical workers faced during the fight against COVID-19 and hopes for a better future. Photos of Chinese medical workers flying to other countries to help in the coronavirus crisis appear in the video as well.
As “Shadow of the Angels” suggests, China and the countries of the Middle East have traded more than words—they have traded aid. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, and Iran donated medical equipment early in the crisis to aid their best oil customer. As China has emerged from the nadir of coronavirus, it has sent or promised medical equipment and teams to Iran, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. The aid to Iran, in particular, was extensivelycovered in Chinese-language state media in early March, likely as part of the effort to shift the narrative of coronavirus from that of a domestic problem to a foreign one.
The Chinese goodwill campaign in the Middle East is the natural result of its growing interests in the region, but also necessary to mitigate diplomatic damage from the crisis. As the COVID-19 crisis accelerated around the world, countries around the Middle East began walking back previously open visa processes for Chinese citizens. The power of the Chinese passport in the Middle East had increased in recent years as regional governments sought to encourage Chinese business. But Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Turkey all enacted China-specific travel restrictions, and Iran suspended its visa exemptions for Chinese citizens. As the world’s largest net oil importer, a confident relationship with MENA nations is imperative. Add that to China’s greater trade and security interests in the region, and it is clear that China cannot afford to lose its partnerships now due to blame for the pandemic.
The Chinese goodwill campaign in the Middle East is the natural result of its growing interests in the region, but also necessary to mitigate diplomatic damage from the crisis.
China and COVID-stricken Iran
Iran in particular has always held a singular place in China’s modern Middle East strategy. It is a nation with great oil resources, a place where China can challenge American hegemony, a market in which China is dominant, and a crucial link in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Iran values China as one of its few trade outlets and a powerful friend in the international community. Iran was slow to suspend travel to China partly out of interest to preserve those ties. Now facing an inadequate domestic response to managing the disease and international sanctions regimes that hinders the procurement of medical equipment, the nation is grappling with a COVID-19 outbreak of greater proportions than any other in the Middle East.
China has taken up the role of Iran’s champion against international sanctions during COVID-19. This is a role China has played often and well when it comes to Iran’s nuclear exploits. When the United States intended to refer Iran’s case from the International Atomic Energy Agency to the UN Security Council in the 2000s, China objected. When the UN Security Council voted to leverage sanctions on Iran, China insisted they be minimal. Now, China has called on the United States to remove its sanctions on Iran. Combined with aid deliveries that are praised by Iran’s leadership and covered by Iranian state news, it further pushes the two countries closer together in opposition to the U.S.
China has taken up the role of Iran’s champion against international sanctions during COVID-19. This is a role China has played often and well when it comes to Iran’s nuclear exploits.
However, the happy narrative supported by Tehran and Beijing was temporarily broken on April 5 when a spokesman for the Iranian Ministry of Health, Kianush Jahanpur, said at a press briefing that China’s statistics on the number of COVID-19 deaths and infections was “a bitter joke,” and that if Beijing had the outbreak under control within two months of the first cases “one should really wonder [if it is true].” The statement was swiftly criticized by Iranian officials and Chinese diplomats alike. This is perhaps the first time an Iranian official has ever criticized China on a hot-button issue. For comparison, no Iranian officials have ever criticized China for its detention of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. That an Iranian official publicly criticized China at all shows just how sensitive the coronavirus issue has become in Iran. However, this condemnation will mostly be swept under the rug by the official solidarity narrative between China and Iran. Jahanpur himself sent a mollifying tweet the next day, saying, “The support of China for the Iranian nation in [these] difficult days is unforgettable.”
The Oil Price War
Promises of closer ties between China and the countries of the Middle East also hit a snag during the oil price crash of early March, another symptom of the pandemic. When Saudi Arabia and Russia faced off and ramped up production – driving the price of oil down to $24 a barrel – Chinese officials saw the opportunity to purchase oil for its strategic reserves. The slump in price was first triggered by the drop in Chinese demand of 1.8 million barrels per day. As early as March 11, it appeared that top Chinese planning officials began moving to increase the stockpile, which operates in secrecy. However, according to a conversation with a Chinese energy specialist with knowledge of the negotiations, Saudi Aramco, normally a close partner of China’s, turned down the Chinese offer.
The reason? According to the specialist, it was Saudi “arrogance.” There is a perception that China has no choice in whether to be Aramco’s customer. China must simply abide by the math that makes Saudi Arabia dominant in the industry. From this reading of events, it would appear that China’s massive oil consumption, the main reason for rising China-Middle East relations, is something that Saudi Arabia takes for granted when there are bigger political objectives at play. It is a reminder that despite the growing array of initiatives in rhetoric, aid, and business, China is still emerging from the periphery in Middle East affairs.
All things considered, the history that is being written by the states involved will say that the Middle East and China forged even closer ties during the COVID-19 crisis. China has made sure that with deliveries of aid and copious Arabic-language messaging, this period will be remembered for solidarity between the two parties and will enable future cooperation. The upward trend of Chinese-Middle Eastern ties is gaining pace, and COVID-19 will be an significant moment on that timeline.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.
Yuang Cao contributed to this article.
"Shadow of the Angels" full video
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Middle East Program
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 U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more