China’s renewed influence in the Gulf

By disseminating narratives of its own supremacy, China deepened relations with the Gulf during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Interview
Published 17 April 2023 5 minute READ

Julia Gurol-Haller

Postdoctoral Researcher, Freiburg University

China has used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to rebrand its international role as a ‘responsible’ and ‘great’ power by voicing narratives of its own supremacy to regions like the Gulf.

In this interview, Julia Gurol-Haller draws on her International Affairs article to trace how the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran have responded to China’s narratives, with key implications for Sino-US competition and regional autonomy for the Gulf. This illustrates how words and narratives help bolster authoritarian power.

What have the China-Gulf relations looked like in context of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Bilateral relations between China and the Gulf countries have grown in importance over the past decade, particularly since 2013 with the Belt and Road Initiative. The Gulf plays a crucial role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its westward expansion, owing to its favourable geographic position and proximity to the Red Sea. 

In the beginning, transregional relations were mainly economic partnerships since China has a growing appetite for oil and gas and the Gulf monarchies fulfil these needs. China is one of the most important markets for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar to export these goods.

Over time, we’ve seen the Sino-Gulf relations expand beyond just economic ties and towards policy fields like security and cultural relations. While these processes were already in place, they were boosted during the COVID-19 pandemic, not only in material terms but also in respect of Chinese attempts to advance its soft power, leverage, and influence in the Gulf region.

When COVID-19 began to ravage the globe, China took that window of opportunity to rebrand its international role. Through efforts such as mask diplomacy, vaccine diplomacy and the strategic diffusion of narratives, China tried to project its image as a ‘global saviour’ and a responsible and great power.

The Gulf monarchies and Iran were among the main target audiences for this public diplomacy campaign. So, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalysing factor for deepening relations between China and the Gulf region.

What exactly are narratives and why are they important in China’s approach to the Gulf states during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Through diplomatic statements, news outlets and social media, China has engaged in, what I call, a ‘narrative power-play’. To understand what that is, we need to understand the political importance of narratives.

Authoritarian leaders function as ‘storytellers-in-chief’, shaping reality in their favour.

Narratives are deliberately constructed by (political) actors to influence a certain target audience. In authoritarian contexts, narratives are a useful resource for political actors to bind audiences to their rule and to appeal to people’s emotions by strategically projecting certain images. 

Ultimately, this creates linkages via attraction or persuasion that enhance the actors’ legitimacy and consolidate their power. So, in the narrative power-play, authoritarian leaders function as ‘storytellers-in-chief’, shaping reality in their favour.

What kinds of narratives has China disseminated to the Gulf region in backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic?

There are two sets of narratives that China disseminated to the Gulf: narratives of supremacy and narratives of a new world order.

China disseminates narratives of systemic supremacy which include praising the overall efficiency of its governance structures. For instance, the Chinese political system is presented as highly efficient and centralized. It has high amounts of ‘state capacity’ for mobilization and the ability to ‘quickly adapt’ to changing situations.

Overall, these narratives serve to depict China as a responsible, caring and loyal world power that helps other states.

Narratives of performative supremacy refer to the tangible performance of the Chinese Communist Party or China as a whole, such as economic performance, performance in governance, provision of public goods or pandemic response. The performance narratives also highlight the ‘incredible logistical efficacy’, the highly professionalized medical sector and the innovative scientific sector. 

Narratives of normative supremacy are often informed by nationalist notions such as the reclaiming of China’s rightful position in the world and negative feelings towards Western imperial powers who are depicted as having inflicted great pains on China during the ‘century of humiliation’. Overall, these narratives serve to depict China as a responsible, caring and loyal world power that helps other states. The whole idea of mask diplomacy was also carved into that notion of China’s normative supremacy.

Together, China has used these narratives to construct the idea of a new world order in which China is believed to play a much bigger role. The world order narratives are closely linked to stories about the failure of the Western system and show the intertwinement of practices of othering and self-glorification that can also be observed in Chinese official media narratives in other contexts such as diplomatic stand-offs with the United States.

What do these narratives tell us about how China understands the world order?

The narratives China disseminated to the Gulf region show that in the Chinese understanding of politics, the world order is in flux and undergoing major power reconfigurations. For China, this implies a window of opportunity to position itself as a responsible and great power and move from the side-lines to the centre stage of international politics.

The narratives China disseminated to the Gulf region show that in the Chinese understanding of politics, the world order is in flux and undergoing major power reconfigurations.

This is a trend that has been long in the making in Chinese foreign policy. For instance, the launch of the Chinese Global Security Initiative or the recent brokering of the Iran-Saudi rapprochement agreement show clearly that China is becoming much more than an economic powerhouse and is adopting a more proactive foreign policy.

During the recent state visit of Xi Jinping to Moscow, he said at one point that China stands ready to ‘safeguard (…) the international order underpinned by international law ’. These examples are quite telling regarding the role China ascribes itself on the international stage.

How have the Gulf countries responded to China’s power narratives during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Iran all picked up the narrative of China’s superior performance during the global crisis. That was a unified response, but they did that to different degrees and by highlighting different aspects.

The strongest reproduction of Chinese narratives can be found in the Emirati media. They buy into the story of the COVID-19 pandemic as evoking a global power shift, which includes a decline of US hegemony and a corresponding rise of China. The explicit wording of Chinese narratives such as ‘community of shared future of humankind’ has been picked up word-for-word by some Emirati media outlets.

Iranian newspapers have also reproduced Chinese narratives. However, the difference is that they also praise China’s unconditional solidarity during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is believed to be superior and more ‘responsible’ than the ostensible individualism of the West. This tells us a lot about Iran’s relationship with the West and how China is believed to be a lifeline or anchor for stability.

The most pressing questions seem to be whether the post-COVID world will be a multipolar order, and what Saudi Arabia’s own position within it might be.

Saudi Arabia has been more cautious in reproducing the Chinese narratives. While it does not contest China’s role in containing the COVID-19 pandemic, Saudi Arabia has adopted a more inward-looking perspective, stressing its own role as a responsible regional player during the pandemic.

This might be explained by the kingdom’s own regional leadership claims and the attempt to use the crisis as an opportunity to strengthen this role. The most pressing questions seem to be whether the post-COVID world will be a multipolar order, and what Saudi Arabia’s own position within it might be. 

Different patterns of engagement cont.

The reason for different patterns of engagement with the Chinese narratives lies in the varying intraregional and geopolitical dynamics that the four countries are individually embedded in.

How is the United States placed in this entire scenario?

We cannot fully grasp the Sino-Gulf relations without talking about the United States. Everything is embedded in the overall systemic tensions between China and the US, and the Gulf countries are trying to strategically position themselves amidst these tensions.

Realizing that the US might no longer be the most reliable security guarantor, Gulf countries are trying to diversify the portfolio of external partners in the region.

Chinese narratives in context of the COVID-19 pandemic are in direct relation to its supremacy over the West, thus signalling global power shifts away from the US and towards China. So, the US remains the overall reference frame.

How the Gulf monarchies have responded to China’s narratives is also conditioned by their respective bilateral relations with the US and the overall changing role of the US in the region. Realizing that the US might no longer be the most reliable security guarantor, Gulf countries are trying to diversify the portfolio of external partners in the region.

As a result, the growing role of China in the Gulf region has led to an enhanced regional agency. With China expanding its footprint in the region, the unilateral dependency from the US diminishes. This gives the Gulf countries an increased leeway to strategically balance between the two superpowers and hedge their bets between them, each with national self-interest in view.

So, in a sense, we could say that the ascendant China in the region holds the promise for a more multipolar Middle East.

What lessons does your research give us about the rise of authoritarianism in the world?

We can start by looking at the global literature on the rise of authoritarianism. For a long time, we have understood authoritarianism mostly through a regime-centric lens. Not falling into that territorial trap but focusing on transregional connections has become increasingly important. That’s where my research comes from.

What we look at less often is how authoritarian leaders also bolster their power through reputational acts, image-building and self-staging – and that is where narratives come into play.

Also, literature on authoritarian power has expanded the understanding of what autocratic leaders do to uphold their power. Borrowing from Lee Morgenbesser, we can call this a ‘menu of autocratic innovation’. We have seen that authoritarian leaders have expanded into the digital sphere or tried to gain and maintain power through surveillance, repression, censorship and disinformation.

But what we look at less often is how they also bolster their power through reputational acts, image-building and self-staging – and that is where narratives come into play. In the study of global authoritarianism, words matter just as much as practices!

Julia Gurol-Haller’s article ‘The authoritarian narrator: China’s power projection and its reception in the Gulf’ is in the March 2023 issue of International Affairs and is free to access.