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Bridging the Gulf: China's Navigation of the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry

Books@Wilson logoBridging the Gulf: China's Navigation of the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry Cover


Wilson Center, 2022


Books@Wilson logoBridging the Gulf: China's Navigation of the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry Cover


As Bridging the Gulf goes to press, Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping is preparing for a December trip to Riyadh, where he will meet crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and hold a summit with Arab leaders. Washington will watch with rapt attention—and fear—but with little understanding of the scope and limits of China’s Middle East ambitions.

In this volume, Lucille Greer provides the historical and strategic background US policymakers badly need.

Since Xi launched its Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, there has been a steady stream of scholarly research on China’s activities in Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America, and, more recently, Central Asia. Scant attention has been given to China’s burgeoning relations in the Middle East, however, despite China’s growing assertiveness there and the fact that it buys more of the region’s oil than any other nation and consumes more than twice as much as the United States."

China manages the difficult balancing act of maintaining good relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and Israel.  Riyadh has a comprehensive strategic partnership with Beijing. Iran, the second and equally vital case study in Bridging the Gulf, concluded a 25-year comprehensive cooperation agreement with China in 2021. Many other countries in the region welcome China as a major market, investor, and hedge against the United States. Most welcome China’s calls for a multipolar order in which non-Western cultures and non-democratic governments have an enhanced voice.

The invasion of Ukraine has brought greater attention to China’s strategies in the Middle East, as regional players support the price of oil, sell arms to Russia, and, especially in Iran’s case, signal interest in working with Russia and China in a nascent block opposed to Western initiatives. But China’s plans in the region predated Russia’s invasion and are likely to expand regardless of how that conflict concludes. China is making a long-term play, both for its own sake, and to stymie and confuse American goals in Eurasia. China’s Middle Eastern arms sales, mooted military bases, and yuan-denominated futures contracts and purchases bring military and financial dimensions to Sino-US competition in the Gulf.

The US is not prepared for this challenge. How many experts in Chinese and Middle Eastern affairs work in the State Department? How many do US universities train? China has 15 Confucius Institutes, and counting, in the Middle East. 50,000 Chinese and foreign students study Arabic and Islamic culture in 37 institutions throughout China, and most likely speak some English. There are no data on how many of the 32,000 American who take Arabic also study Chinese, but it seems a safe bet that the total number of truly trilingual (English-Chinese-Arabic or Farsi) Americans is in the low double digits.

Lucille Greer is an accomplished Arabist who gained extensive knowledge of both the Middle East and China through her time living and researching in the Arab world, her studies at Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and her two-year fellowship at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. She is currently a foreign affairs specialist in the Middle East Policy Office at the Department of Defense. The Wilson Center is proud to have sponsored her pioneering research and to present it to you in these pages.

All views and opinions expressed in this report are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Defense.

About the Author

Lucille Greer

Lucille Greer

Schwarzman Scholar;
Foreign Affairs Specialist, Office of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East  
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Kissinger Institute on China and the United States

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