stratEGIC Monthly (December 2022):
From Beijing to Baghdad: Wrapping Up 2022
By Veronica Stigliani and Ashleigh White
The eleventh issue of the stratEGIC Monthly, featuring analyses of key issues that defined the Euro-Gulf space in December 2022, assesses Chinese President’s visit to the Gulf and the Baghdad Summit.
Xi in the Gulf: A “New Era”?
By Veronica Stigliani
China’s President Xi Jinping’s trip to Saudi Arabia represented one of the most remarkable official visits of 2022, and its outcomes will continue to reverberate for the years to come.
During the two-day visit, Xi attended three key summits — a Saudi-Chinese Summit, a Gulf-China Summit and an Arab-China Summit — in a bid to strengthen Beijing’s cooperation with the Arabian Peninsula. China and Saudi Arabia also inaugurated a comprehensive strategic partnership, which will boost coordination between Saudi Vision 2030 and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, agreeing to hold bilateral summits every two years. Moreover, Saudi and Chinese firms signed 34 investment agreements, worth over €28 billion euros, on cooperation in the fields of energy, information technology, services, and transport. The deals come as both countries navigate strains in their relationships with the United States.
Saudi Arabia-US relationship has been tense following the perceived deprioritising of the Middle East in Washington, and because of competing visions of energy policy, exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. One sign of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to continue distancing from the Biden administration is the involvement in the agreements with Beijing of the Chinese giant Huawei, which is strongly opposed by Washington. However, 5G network development, seen as a direct threat by the Americans, has been ruled out for the time being, proving that Saudi Arabia is still trying to maintain a cautious balance between China and the US. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates, did declare that they have no intention of choosing sides, only being interested in diversifying partners to serve national economic interests. However, it is clear that China is attempting to expand its reach in the Gulf beyond trade into politics and security.
A Euro-Middle Eastern Attempt at Stabilising Iraq
By Ashleigh White
On 20 December 2022, leaders from European and Middle Eastern countries met in Jordan to discuss the security and stability in Iraq. The meeting included high level officials from Bahrain, Egypt, France, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE and the European Union. The goal of the meeting was to show support for Iraq and its security and stability as well as political process. Iraq’s political landscape has been shaken for years and recently, the country has been paralysed by political gridlock. The security meeting was held as a follow-up to the French co-organised Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership held in Iraq in 2021. The two meetings are a display of the French government’s attempts to play an increasingly active role in the region, a move that is representative of many European countries recent shift to increased cooperation with the Gulf. French President, Emmanuel Macron spoke at the conference in December about issues concerning foreign influence in Iraq. Macron cited deadlocks, divisions, and security issues as prohibiting the goal of peace in the region. Moving forward we can expect to see increased focus on the Middle East within European foreign policy decisions.
One key aspect of the meeting includes the public interaction between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is the first-time officials from the two countries have met since Iran accused Saudi Arabia of inciting protests in Iran this fall. However even though the conference offered potential for direct talks, there was no direct meeting between the Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud. The Iraqi political regime has attempted to play a mediator role between Iran and Saudi Arabia however this has led to increased competition between the two rivals for influence in Iraq. Although there were high hopes for the meeting’s success, unrealistic expectations such as decreasing Iranian influence in Iraq has led to disappointments. Although many promises were given to limit foreign influence in Iraq, there were few tangible achievements. Ultimately, Iraq will continue to play a role in the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Remarks in the meeting emphasised the need for cooperation between the GCC and Iraq, specifically regarding the economy, transports, energy and counterterrorism. It is clear, moving forward, that increased GCC influence in Iraq hinges on the balance Iraq continues to play between Iran and Saudi Arabia.