Analysis | Why Muslim countries in the Middle East support Chinese atrocities in Xinjiang
The following blog post draws on research conducted by the author with funding and support from the ISD Fellows in Diplomacy program.
The reaction of Muslim Middle Eastern states to the Bosnian genocide in 1992 was strident; several nations including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates issued strong statements in support of the Bosnian Muslims and called for international action. Muslim Middle Eastern states responded similarly to the Rohingya crisis in 2017.
These expressions of solidarity contrast sharply with the diplomatic and political cover many Muslim Middle Eastern states provide to Chinese atrocities toward Uighur Muslims, which include the destruction of Uighur culture, mass sterilization of Uighur women, widespread torture, and the forced internment of over 1.2 million Uighur and Turkic individuals. In 2019, a large majority of these states signed onto a letter supporting Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang.
Defensive realism is an effective framework for understanding the primary factors behind Muslim Middle Eastern state support for Chinese persecution of Uighurs. These factors consist of Chinese economic ties and authoritarian influence. Ethnic and cultural cleavages within Islam are a secondary factor, discouraging a global sense of responsibility for Muslims living outside the core Islamic heartland.
Defensive realism in the Middle East
Defensive realism is a theoretical framework that attempts to explain state behavior by arguing that, amidst conditions of anarchy and insecurity, states are primarily motivated by the desire to survive. Although no framework can fully account for real-world nuances, defensive realism is an effective prism for understanding the insecure and competitive nature of Middle Eastern geopolitics.
Threat perceptions for autocratic regimes across the Middle East undoubtedly remain heightened because of the Arab Spring; after more than a decade, states are still “terrified of another outbreak of popular protests.” These sudden and unexpected Arab Spring uprisings “created new fears about regime survival, even among the most successful players.” In order to solidify their own regime’s survival, Middle Eastern states must ensure that potential rivals do not exploit regional chaos to gain influence. This in turn creates a security dilemma and encourages constant competition over resources, creating inroads for Chinese influence. Through the prism of this security dilemma, Chinese economic ties become an arena for inter-state competition, and China’s authoritarian support becomes an essential ingredient for regime survival.
Chinese trade and investment
The strongest explanation for the tepid regional response to the Xinjiang crisis is that economic relations between China and many Middle Eastern countries have deepened significantly over the past two decades. China has combined its growing consumption of Middle Eastern hydrocarbons with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to increase its foreign direct investment in the region by over 340 percent from 2012 to 2020.
While America’s economic role as a customer for Middle Eastern oil has diminished, China’s hydrocarbon imports from the Middle East have increased. For hydrocarbon-dependent Middle Eastern states, which encompasses virtually all of the region’s major geopolitical players from the Gulf to Egypt, this trend emphasizes the importance of China as an economic lifeline. At the same time, China’s BRI leverages infrastructure development and economic diversification as essential components of political security. If a government is unable to provide jobs for growing populations of young, educated citizens, the Arab Spring turmoil in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya suggests that regime collapse is not far behind. Even oil-poor Lebanon has become a BRI partner in order to secure funding for commercial infrastructure. As of 2021, Jordan is the only major Middle Eastern state that is not a BRI partner. However, as a non-oil producing state, Jordan lacks a fully independent foreign policy and is highly dependent on its oil-producing neighbors for economic support.
Chinese BRI investments, projected to grow to over $1 trillion by 2027, are especially important for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE–all of which have signed Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships, one of the highest levels of BRI partnership, with China. Consequently, each of these states has firmly defended China’s oppressive actions in Xinjiang. In addition to publicly endorsing China’s Xinjiang policies, all of these countries have deported Uighurs back to China at Beijing’s request. The defensive realist motivations for this behavior are clear:Egypt and Saudi Arabia face serious internal instability, and all three of these Sunni-majority countries are threatened by rising Iranian influence; the Gulf states perceive Iran as an existential threat, while Tehran’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood threatens to destabilize Egypt.
A quick survey of the 2019 letter reveals that virtually all of the Middle Eastern signatories are authoritarian regimes. China offers these regimes an appealing developmental model of high-tech authoritarianism, unbothered by human rights violations, paired with economic dynamism.
China has already begun exporting this brand of techno-authoritarianism to countries across the Middle East, including Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Beyond mere technology transfer through the Digital Silk Road, shared authoritarian visions between most Middle Eastern states and Beijing create an elective affinity on issues such as domestic human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Xi Jinping’s focus on “development peace” over the values-based “democratic peace” espoused by Washington is designed to provide economic support while strengthening Middle Eastern despots.
These trends have only accelerated since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Beijing doubling down on cooperation with Middle Eastern despots in exchange for diplomatic concessions on issues such as Xinjiang human rights violations.
Uighurs share much in common with Muslims across the Middle East: the Uighurs are predominantly Sunni, perform the Hajj, and share a rich cultural tradition with their Middle Eastern neighbors. However, unlike the majority of Middle Eastern Muslims, the Uighurs are not Arab. The geographic position of Xinjiang combined with the distinctive cultural traditions of the region combine to place Uighurs at the cultural periphery of the Muslim world.
The Uighurs are even more culturally distant from the Middle East than Bosnian Muslims, as the area encompassing Xinjiang has not been part of a contiguous political unit with the Middle East since the Mongol conquest, unlike Bosnia’s historical connection to the Ottoman Empire. The uniqueness of Uighur culture and its fringe status likely contributes to a sense of apathy in predominantly Arab states.
There are several ways that the United States can mitigate the influence that China exercises in the Middle East. Critical to all these approaches is a coherent American grand strategy that reprioritizes the Middle East as a major arena for great power competition. Within this grand strategic framework, the United States should:
- Refocus its own economic development initiatives to compete more effectively with the BRI;
- Raise the cost of Chinese efforts to expand influence; and
- Leverage U.S. security advantages in the region, and boost media coverage in the Middle East of Uighur issues.
The lack of Middle Eastern support for the Uighurs reflects both a colossal humanitarian tragedy and an increasing strategic realignment towards China. However, there are openings for decisive, skillful, and values-based diplomacy to rewrite the narrative around Uighurs and Chinese influence in the Middle East. American foreign policy in the Middle East has encountered many challenges and failures over the years. We must not fail the Uighurs now.
Harper Thomas is a BSFS graduate and an M.A. Security Studies candidate at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where he studies International Security, Arabic, and Theology. Harper lived in China from 2012–2018.
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