How to sell sand to the Arabs

China is dependent upon the Middle East for 60% of its energy imports which can be expected to grow with its increasing needs. Saudi is its largest trading partner in energy, followed by Angola and Iran and the current rate of trade between Arab states and China stands at around $222 billion – 12 times greater than in 2002. Morsi’s five minute affair with power landed Egypt a $200million line of credit and China is now the biggest importer of Iran’s crude despite it being a ¼ of total imports from Saudi. Trade with Saudi Arabia in 2007 was recorded at $25.4 billion and reached $64.32 billion in 2011. 75% of Sino-Arab trade is energy related, but has been purposefully diversified in recent years.

Middle Eastern states are readily selling gas and oil to China, preferring its business to the fickle nature of the US – whilst acting as a balancing market force to America in the region, its stability as a buyer is attractive to Arab states. The indisputable Chinese desire to intensify its economic clout across the globe has boosted procurements, however, unwilling to compromise its position in the US market; it does not wish to appear a serious regional threat to the American administration. The language employed by Sino-businessmen is that of ‘interdependence’, which fares better than the US’ continual calls for independence from Arab energy. American ministers travel to the Peninsula expecting officials to speak English whilst Chinese representatives often speak fluent Arabic. Chinese presence forces the US to lift roadblocks in an attempt to reignite positive relations it has chosen to ignore throughout history.

China is weary of fully allying itself with any particular grouping, demonstrated clearly during the Libyan revolution as China attempted to play both sides and has repeatedly vetoed UN resolutions concerning Syria. Whilst the Gulf States encourage China to reflect its economic power through exhibiting a clearer stance on political positions, China continues to trump abstaining from national affairs over US style intervention. The Chinese are supportive of the status quo providing it secures stable energy prices, its unease was apparent during the Arab spring through its reluctance to side with dictators for fear of alienating itself from successful popular movements.  The Chinese also benefit from America’s dominance – sanctions against Iran allow China to buy Iranian crude at a low cost, simultaneously sheltering Iran from the full effects of US economic punitive measures.

The relationship between the Chinese government and its Uighur population is another incentive for increased involvement in the Middle East with the intention of deterring funds to its Muslim communities currently under oppression (1). The US arms trade still dominates the region, but Chinese leaders are muscling in, proved by its recent plans with Turkey. Erdogan and Abbas have both visited China and Chinese peace keepers are on guard in Lebanon.

The Chinese economic encroachment on the Middle East has its benefits, but as The Global Land Grab of Africa intensifies, the negative effects this has had upon ‘lower classes’ of society is incontestable. That one ‘could sell sand to the Arabs’ is no longer an innocent turn phrase, it is today’s reality. Chinese traders are selling tonnes of Egyptian silica sand to the world at basal prices (2).

I am not an individual who believes in open borders and have a protectionist mind set in consideration of state assets. If a nation allows another to acquire swathes of land and invest heavily in state property, the seller state will eventually lose its sovereignty. An immediate consequence is the loss of national jobs, national pride and the strength of one’s economy to the highly competitive China.

Noora Ismail

To read more about Sino-Arab relations, CSIS has a series of articles:




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