Online magazine highlighting research, news and analysis covering the European Neighbourhood

Concerns increase about Chinese influence in the Middle East

The United States have warned Saudi Arabia and their Gulf allies against engaging too much with China, as the White House top official responsible for the Middle East made clear to Western allies in the Gulf that deepening certain ties with China would hamper their cooperation with their chief strategic ally and security partner.

Meanwhile, Professor Michael Tanchum, a non-resident fellow with the Middle East Institute’s Economics and Energy Program, has published an analysis on China’s influence in the Middle East, writing:

“The possibility that the Lebanese government could opt for China to reconstruct Beirut’s port has raised alarm in Washington and European capitals given China’s already outsized commercial port presence in Egypt, Israel, and Greece. Increased Chinese involvement in Lebanon’s port operations could consolidate Beijing’s hold over the commercial connectivity architecture of the Levant.

Re-orienting global commercial flows between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia according to Beijing’s priorities would make China’s Belt and Road Initiative a dominant organizing principle in the international relations of the Middle East. The most effective way to offset China’s ambition may be to facilitate Mediterranean rivals France and Turkey to jointly rebuild Beirut’s port.”

He adds:

“Chinese construction and operation of the Port of Beirut would augment its growing dominance of the commercial maritime routes across the eastern Mediterranean. China already presides over the trans-Mediterranean, commercial maritime artery that connects Egypt’s ports to the European mainland at the massive Chinese-run trans-shipment port in Piraeus, Greece. Piraeus’s port operator China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) provides freight rail service that ultimately reaches Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland.

China is assisting Egypt to increase the total container capacity of its Mediterranean ports to partner with Piraeus as the dominant trans-shipment hub in the Mediterranean basin. In a near mirror image to Piraeus, China occupies a preeminent position in both the operation of Egypt’s Mediterranean ports and their capacity expansion. The majority of Egypt’s foreign trade is handled by the Alexandria port and its auxiliary El Dekheila port with a combined container capacity of 1.5 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU). The port is run by Hong Kong-based Hutchison Port Holdings, as a joint venture between Hutchison, the Alexandria Port Authority, and Saudi Al Blagha Holding. Hutchison is also developing a 2-million-TEU Egyptian port at the nearby Abu Qir Peninsula that will start operations in 2022.”