China’s “project of the century” is undergoing some profound changes. Less than a decade ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) to connect China to Eurasia through extensive maritime and overland trade routes. Despite the grand rhetoric of the BRI physically linking the global economy to Beijing, the initiative’s aims are straightforward. The BRI is a Chinese investment platform that employs Chinese capital across infrastructure projects in emerging markets for geopolitical gains. Remarkably, this investment strategy is now turning away from traditional countries like Russia and African nations to focus on Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.
Critics have argued that the BRI is a form of debt trap diplomacy by another name. The ongoing economic saga unfolding in Sri Lanka gives weight to these arguments. Yet, this narrow focus misses the larger geopolitical dimensions of the BRI’s true aims. Like many wealthy countries worldwide, China will always engage in predatory lending. That’s just how the global economy works. What’s more interesting is how the BRI has evolved into a vehicle of Chinese geopolitical influence and how this influence has shifted to focus on the Middle East.
The countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been on the official list of BRI countries since its inception, but they haven’t been a primary focus of the initiative in its earlier phases. This is partly because GCC countries don’t need access to cheap Chinese credit like some African and East Asian countries. Aside from being vital nexus points for trade in emerging markets, the GCC’s role in the BRI has traditionally been focused on regional partners, construction projects, and energy.
From the Gulf’s perspective, the BRI is a vital support link for allied countries such as Pakistan and Egypt. China has played a pivotal role through the BRI in the Gwadar port and pipeline project in Pakistan as well as Egypt’s Suez Canal Area Development Project. In recent years, the Chinese have grown more aggressive in their interest in the Middle East, specifically the Gulf. When Saudi Aramco was exploring various ways to become a publicly traded company, Chinese investors (some of which were backed by the government) were ready to buy large stakes in the…