Today, American strategists see Great Power competition with China, rather than countering terrorism, as the US’s primary security concern. Because of this, some suggest that Arabian Gulf states may no longer be as relevant to America’s geostrategic calculus as they once were, particularly during the Cold War. Moreover, the geo-economic rationale behind the robust US military presence in the region no longer applies, now that reliance on the Gulf for oil has diminished thanks to shale technology – or so the argument goes. And while Iran, ISIS and Al Qaeda remain worrisome to Washington, the US has sought to reallocate military assets away from the US Central Command, which encompasses the Arabian Gulf, to the Indo-Pacific theater, where they would serve to counter China’s military edge.
However, Gulf Arab states do in fact constitute a key part of the puzzle of countering China’s military and economic footprint. Their geographic location, coupled with their hydrocarbon assets and economic allure, implies that any US strategy aimed at contesting China’s influence must undeniably include sustained and systematic engagement with America’s Gulf partners.
In his book, “The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century,” the American pundit and analyst, Robert D. Kaplan, lays out the military rationale behind fusing the American presence in the Gulf into its broader Indo-Pacific strategy. Kaplan advocates merging America’s “presence in the Persian Gulf region with that in the South and East China seas,” while “leveraging the growing naval presence of India,” to optimize the US’s long-term posture against a rising China.
Among the Gulf states, Oman stands out for its geographic proximity to the straits of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab. It therefore holds strategic significance in the quest for naval supremacy and control – or at least the ability to deny control to any rival power – over vital sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean. In March 2019, the US signed an agreement with Oman that grants the US Navy access to the ports of Duqm and Salalah. In addition to bypassing the perilous Strait of Hormuz, the two ports, located in the Arabian Sea, serve as key vantage points between China’s naval base in Djibouti and the Pakistani port of Gwadar, in which China holds a major commercial stake. Oman, in other words, is already shaping up as a pivotal player in the Great Power competition over the Indian Ocean.
Besides the naval domain, Gulf states hold considerable sway over the great powers’ contest for influence and market share in the global arms industry. Saudi Arabia, for example, was the world’s largest importer of arms between 2015 and 2019, accounting for 12 percent of global arms imports. The UAE was not too far behind in eighth place.
Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have turned to Beijing to procure military technology, such as armed drones, that Washington has so far refused to sell them. As a sign of their growing ties in the defense industry, Saudi Arabia reportedly is setting up the only Chinese facility in the Middle East to manufacture and service armed drones. Although the US remains their largest vendor of arms and has in fact widened its market share in recent years, the gradual turn to Beijing by the Gulf states risks eroding the US’s ability to control end-user operations while affording China the opportunity to widen its defense industry footprint in the region.
From a geo-economic perspective, the US military presence in the Gulf gives it considerable leverage over a commodity that remains vital to China’s economic and military ambitions: oil. Although the US may no longer need oil from the Gulf, China still does; about 44 percent of its imports come from the region. By maintaining a robust military presence in the region, the US in effect has China’s energy supplies in a stranglehold. In the case of conflict, the US could choke the Chinese economy.
Economically, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are China’s top trade and investment partners in the MENA region. In 2018, China committed over $11.5 billion in investments and contracts in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Despite US warnings, telecom operators in Gulf states, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, are partnering with Huawei to roll out parts of their 5G networks. Since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, China also has made inroads into industrial and logistics sectors in those states, deploying tens of billions of dollars to develop a container terminal at the UAE’s Khalifa port, an industrial city and special economic zone at Oman’s Duqm port and an industrial park in Jazan, Saudi Arabia. Although Chinese investments have fallen since their peak in 2009 due to slower economic growth and shrinking foreign currency reserves, China remains an active and ambitious player in strategic sectors of Gulf economies.
To keep China in check, the US will no longer be able to rely on sheer strength alone. Instead, it will need to sustain and leverage key partnerships, such as those with Gulf states, that allow it to maximize its military and economic impact against China. Although the Gulf states will seek to avoid being drawn into the fray, their own security needs all but guarantee a long-term demand for a trusted US presence.
Hasan Alhasan is a researcher at the India Institute at King’s College London and an associate fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Previously, he served as a senior analyst at the Office of the First Deputy Prime Minister of Bahrain.