‘America first’ could lead to Gulf states turning eastwards

Under the US president Donald Trump’s push towards a refocus on trade protectionism, the world’s second-largest economy is in a position to take advantage globally. But it will require a new approach to forming international ties.

However, the types of relationships it is likely to foster will be markedly different to those currently in place, according to an expert in political risk.

In an exclusive interview with The National in Abu Dhabi, Ian Bremmer, the founder of New York-based political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, says the Chinese president Xi Jinping’s pro-globalisation speech given at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January – an event to which the US government only sent a junior adviser – was an example of the shifting attitudes between their respective governments towards global trade.

“There’s no question that the Chinese are the only country of size that has a global economic strategy today. The US does not,” Mr Bremmer says.

China’s is seeking to expand its sphere of influence through its One Belt, One Road strategy, building infrastructure and trade links both through central Asia into Europe and through the Middle East to Africa and beyond.

“They’re writing big cheques, they’re supporting infrastructure build all over the world and they’re also building a set of economic architecture and trade relationships that will be not only complementary to those set up by the US, they will be competitive,” says Mr Bremmer.

He argues that, for many countries, the appeal of working with China – apart from its funding capability – is a greater predictability. He points out that many countries invested a lot of time and political capital into the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which unravelled in the run-up to, and following, last year’s US elections. Given that the next election cycle will get underway in two years, alliances could change once more.

“In China, you’ve got Xi Jinping and you have a feeling that even if China itself is less stable, the political process is something that you have more ability to predict out to a longer degree.”

Mr Bremmer says there are already signs that many countries – particularly the likes of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam in South-east Asia – are more closely aligning themselves to China.

“You’re seeing it in sub-Saharan Africa, of course, but over time you could see it more in this part of the world.

“Certainly, when you look at the Saudi king’s recent trip, that is indicative.”

During a visit to China this month, King Salman bin Abdulaziz oversaw the signing of deals that are potentially worth up to US$65 billion in trade between the two countries, including a memorandum of understanding between Saudi Aramco and China North Industries Group that could see the former building refining and chemical plants in China. Another deal was signed by Saudi Basic Industries (Sabic) and Sinopec to develop petrochemical plants in both countries.

And yesterday, Sinopec said it had been invited to invest in Aramco’s huge upcoming IPO.

According to Reuters, King Salman said Saudi Arabia was “willing to work hard with China to promote global and regional peace, security and prosperity”.

The king’s son, deputy crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, also received a warm reception in Washington when meeting Mr Trump in the same week, in a visit described as a “reset” of the relationship between the two countries following tensions in the wake of the former president Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. But Mr Bremmer has doubts that Saudi Arabia’s government can form a lasting bond with Mr Trump’s administration, citing the passing of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which came as a surprise to Saudi government officials.

“They really believed they had more friends in Congress. They believed they had a more effective lobby, and they don’t. And it’s not because there aren’t people that like Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have been an important ally on security, on intelligence,” Mr Bremmer says.

However, the kingdom has found itself short of supporters because “anti-Muslim sentiment in the US is very high”, Mr Bremmer says.

He says even though there are some in the Trump administration, such as the secretary of defence James Mattis, who believe that traditional Arabian Gulf allies are important, there are many others who view Islam as “a problem”.

“The number of anti-Islamic hate groups that have been formed in the course of the last 18 months is record-setting,” says Mr Bremmer. “This has become a real issue in the US. I think the focus on the laptop issue as well [the ban on carrying laptops in hand luggage on flights into the US], is clearly a piece of this.

Mr Bremmer said the Trump administration can now see some Middle Eastern leaders as secular but people like Mr Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, who are quite powerful, see these people as conservative Muslims and think that is a problem.

“They think that’s fundamentally not in alignment with the US – and one of the reasons why someone like Bannon is willing to work with Russia, despite all of the obvious problems, is because they see the focus on Judeo-Christian values as very important.”

He believes that the Trump administration is unlikely to be interested in maintaining any form of peacekeeping role in the region.

“Ultimately, it’s not like the United States, whether it’s Trump or anyone else, thinks they have any good solutions for stability in the Middle East. Whether it’s Syria, Libya or Yemen or Iraq – these things have largely gone poorly for the US whether they’ve engaged a lot or a little.

“It’s not that stability and security doesn’t matter, but the United States is very far away. Terrorism is more a conceptual threat, an identity issue and something you can rally the base to than a direct national security threat. It’s not like Europe. It’s certainly not like the Middle East.”

Mr Bremmer says that although China may play a greater economic role in the region, it will be less willing to play the role of global policeman that the US has undertaken, with its interests primarily geared around energy supply and trade links.

“China’s interest in this region is overwhelmingly commercial – it’s not from a security perspective.

“They’ll support a greater role in peacekeeping over time. They’ll want to have some military bases that can defend their supply chain, but they’ll want to have a very different kind of relationship in terms of things like intelligence, defence and basing than the Americans and the Europeans have historically.

“The Chinese do no want to play sides. That’s one of the reasons why the Emirates is attractive to China is because it’s an obvious place where you can use it as a base for the region.

“Xi Jinping is very careful when he comes to the region. He’s always going to Saudi Arabia and Iran. And he wants to maintain good relations with both.”

A report published this month by BMI Research, part of the Fitch Group, argued that if China manages to successfully consolidate its One Belt, One Road policy, it could lead to the US “being marginalised from Eurasian politics”.

“If China emerges as the main driver of trade and main provider of security in central, south, and South East Asia, and even the Middle East, then the US would find its role in world affairs further diminished,” the report said.

“Even Europe, which has traditionally been aligned with the US, could find its economic focus shifting away from the Atlantic towards China.”