The US-China bilateral relationship is the most consequential one in the world, with major political, economic, and security ramifications. The deteriorating state of their relationship is a concern, not just in Washington and Beijing, but around the world, as their ‘strategic competition’ is resulting in uncomfortable decisions for leaders everywhere. This is especially acute in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA), where US security relationships and Chinese economic relationships are increasingly at odds. That both superpowers have such significant regional interests and deep mutual distrust indicates that MENA could become, yet again, a theatre of great power competition.
Washington and Beijing have identified each other as potential threats to their own prosperity and security. The Trump administration used ‘great power competition’ in framing its approach to China, and the Biden administration is following a similar one that has been rebranded as ‘strategic competition’. The Biden administration’s 2021 Interim National Security Strategy Guidance describes China as “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.” For its part, Chinese leaders argue that the US seeks to contain its rise to global power status and undermine its domestic stability. During the contentious Alaska summit in March 2021, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “China urges the US side to fully abandon the hegemonic practice of willfully interfering in China’s internal affairs.” Looking from the outside, the current state of the bilateral relationship is a textbook example of the security dilemma. Both sides believe they are acting defensively in response to unprovoked aggression from the other. In Washington, many blame the tensions on Chinese policies under Xi. In Beijing, many link them to Trump’s approach to China.
For MENA, the consequences are daunting. Over the past twenty years, China has emerged as a major economic partner of every country in the region, and the idea of having to choose between the two superpowers is unappealing. The UAE’s presidential advisor Anwar Gargash recently made this point, saying “the idea of choosing is problematic in the international system, and I think this is not going to be an easy ride… For us here in the UAE, the United States is our predominant strategic partner but China is our number one or two – with India – economic partner.” Under the Trump administration, US officials applied pressure on MENA allies and partners regarding cooperation with China on sectors such as 5G and port management that they perceived as sensitive. This has continued under President Biden; the Defense Department’s deputy assistant secretary for the Middle East Dana Stroul testified in August 2021, “We understand that there will be an economic or trade relationship with China, just like the United States has, but there are certain categories of activities or engagement that our partners may be considering with China that, if they do, will pose a risk to U.S. defense technology, other kinds of technology, and ultimately force protection.”
That the Middle East is becoming a competitive theatre is, on the face of it, somewhat unusual. China does a lot of business in the region, it imports over 40% of its crude from the Gulf producers and has identified MENA as an important hub in the Belt and Road Initiative. At the same time, the Middle East is not a core interest for a government with major domestic political and economic pressures and many hostile neighboring countries on its periphery. The US has important regional allies and partners, but its MENA interests have long been waning. As a result, both Republicans and Democrats call for a reduced role, which resonates with a large segment of the population. With the Indo-Pacific identified as the US’s priority theatre, a deep American footprint in the Middle East is less strategically important than it was during the first two decades of this century, when counterterrorism and MENA wars drove US foreign and defense policy.
Nevertheless, the Middle East appears to be a volatile flashpoint in US-China relations. Two examples from this year illustrate this, both from the Persian Gulf. The first, not surprisingly, is the status of the bilateral relationship between China and Iran. Shortly after the summit in Alaska, FM Wang went to Tehran and signed the long-awaited comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP) agreement that the two countries had been working toward since its January 2016 announcement.From the US, this was seen as Beijing supporting a revisionist threat to MENA order. The New York Times reported the agreement “would create new and potentially dangerous flashpoints in the US-China relationship” and could provide China with “a foothold in a region that has been a strategic preoccupation of the United States for decades.” This was only exacerbated when it was announced that Iran would begin the process of becoming a full member of the China and Russia-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) during the September Ministerial Summit in Dushanbe; a membership that Iran had coveted since 2008. Taken together, it seemed like China was challenging US regional leadership on a pressing issue.
More surprisingly, in May 2021, The Wall Street Journal reported that China was building a military facility in the UAE. With a US defense cooperation agreement in place since 1994, the UAE is deeply engaged with Washington across political and security affairs, and the 2020 Abraham Accords seemed to further consolidate this, as did the agreement to sell F-35s to the Emirates. At the same time, China and the UAE have been broadening and deepening their ties since upgrading their bilateral relationship to a CSP in 2018. The pandemic intensified this, as China’s BGI and the UAE’s G42 coordinated on COVID policy and vaccine trials. Importantly, immediately after visiting Tehran and signing the CSP deal with Iran, FM Wang went to Abu Dhabi where an agreement was signed to manufacture and distribute HayatVax, a Sinopharm COVID vaccine, in the UAE.Many believed the Abraham Accords would put a ceiling on the Sino-Emirati relationship, but the news that China was indeed in the process of building a military facility in Abu Dhabi implies that Beijing is more confident in pushing against the US in MENA than previously thought.
It is too soon to read too much into this. The Middle East remains a lesser strategic interest for China than regions closer to home like the South China Sea or Central Asia. However, by keeping the US focused on MENA, it delays a more robust operationalization of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which is an immediate concern in Beijing. Low level competition in MENA is therefore a more likely scenario.
 See Ronald O’Rourke, “Renewed Great Power Competition; Implications for Defense – Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, October 7, 2021, pp. 1-3.
 White House, “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,” March 2021, p. 9.
 “How It Happened: Transcript of the US-China Opening Remarks in Alaska,” Nikkei Asia, March 19, 2021.
 Zainab Fattah, “Top UAE Official Warns on Risk of ‘Cold War’ Between China, U.S.” Bloomberg, October 2, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-10-02/top-uae-official-warns-on-risk-of-cold-war-between-china-u-s
 Lahav Harkov, “US Asking Israel to Eliminate China Ties in Sensitive Areas,” The Jerusalem Post, May 20, 2020.
 Joel Gehrke, “US Warns Middle East Allies not to Give China a Military Base,” The Washington Examiner, August 10, 2021
 Jonathan Fulton, “Slender Beijing-Tehran Agreement: More is Less, Despite Hype,” The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, April 1, 2021, https://agsiw.org/slender-beijing-tehran-agreement-more-is-less-despite-hype/
 Faranaz Fassihi and Steven Lee Myers, “Defying U.S., China and Iran Near Trade and Military Partnership,” The New York Times, July 11, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/11/world/asia/china-iran-trade-military-deal.html
 Jonathan Fulton, “With the US out of Afghanistan, Iran Jumps on the Opportunity of Joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” IranSource, September 23, 2012, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/with-the-us-out-of-afghanistan-iran-jumps-on-the-opportunity-of-joining-the-shanghai-cooperation-organization/
 Warren P. Strobel and Nancy A. Youssef, “F-35 Sale to U.A.E. Imperiled over U.S. Concerns about Ties to China,” The Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/f-35-sale-to-u-a-e-imperiled-over-u-s-concerns-about-ties-to-china-11621949050
 Sylvia Westall, Adveith Nair, and Farah Elbahrawy, “China Picks UAE to Make Millions of Vaccines, Boosting Gulf Ties,” Bloomberg, March 28, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-28/julphar-signs-deal-with-abu-dhabi-firm-to-produce-sinopharm-shot?sref=a9fBmPFG
 Gordon Lubold and Warren P. Strobel, “Secret Chinese Port Project in Persian Gulf Rattles U.S. Relations with U.A.E.,” The Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/us-china-uae-military-11637274224