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International relations

China bolsters ties with UAE, a traditional US ally in Middle East

Beijing seeks to expand its footprint in the region as American clout wanes

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan during their meeting in Abu Dhabi in late March.    © Reuters

BEIJING/DUBAI -- China is on a diplomatic offensive in the Middle East as the U.S. presence diminishes, and has been expanding ties with the United Arab Emirates -- one of Washington's traditional allies in the region.

Beijing has agreed to supply a COVID-19 vaccine developed in China as well as Chinese technology for fifth-generation (5G) wireless technology to the Gulf state, which is made up of seven emirates in eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula.

UAE public health authorities announced in mid-May plans to offer a third shot to recipients of the Chinese state-backed Sinopharm vaccine against COVID-19.

Dubai, one of the sheikhdoms, is scheduled to host World Expo in October, a year behind schedule. The Sinopharm vaccine is key to the city-state's efforts to prevent infections during the event, which will now run from October 1 to March 31, 2022.

Dubai has also secured vaccine supplies from the U.S.'s Pfizer-BioNTech, the U.K.'s Oxford-AstraZeneca, as well as Russia's Sputnik V, but most doses will be imported from China.

The UAE is competing with Israel for having the highest proportion of its population vaccinated. It has succeeded in gradually reopening its vital tourism industry by offering free vaccine shots to all, including foreign residents.

China and the UAE have also agreed on production of the Sinopharm vaccine at a new plant being built in the Khalifa Industrial Zone of Abu Dhabi. The agreement was announced during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's visit in late March. The vaccine produced will also be exported.

The UAE has adopted Chinese apps to administrate vaccine shots and manage information about the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for COVID-19 infection.

The Arab nation is looking to China for defense against terrorist attacks and monitoring anti-government forces.

The UAE is also expected to allow Huawei Technologies, a Chinese tech giant blacklisted by Washington for security concerns, to build the country's 5G network.

The People's Bank of China, the country's central bank, and its UAE counterpart are jointly studying the use of digital yuan for cross-border payments.

In April, UAE authorities detained a permanent Chinese resident of the U.S. at Dubai International Airport. The 19-year-old student was wanted by China because of online comments about a deadly armed clash between Chinese and Indian forces last year in a disputed region in the Karakoram mountains. The man had questioned the number of Chinese deaths admitted by Beijing.

The UAE has an extradition treaty with China, but the man was freed on May 27 after the U.S. expressed concerns, according to the Associated Press. The episode was nevertheless seen as another sign of the UAE gravitating toward China.

The UAE has expressed its support for China's efforts to protect its "core interests." That includes suppression of the Uighurs in the country's restive far western region of Xinjiang, a policy condemned in the West. It also endorses the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Major oil-producing states of the Persian Gulf, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, are pushing through reforms to reduce economic dependence on oil exports. These include introducing value-added taxes that place a greater financial burden on the public.

Observers predict that public demand for democracy is likely to grow in the process of changing the distribution of oil income in these countries. Some Arab leaders may view China, which has achieved strong economic development without Western-style democracy, as an exemplar for their own economic strategies.

In its strategic pivot to Asia as challenges there from China grow, the U.S. has reduced some of its commitments to the Middle East. One example is the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

Beijing wants to fill some of the gaps, and has struck a 25-year strategic agreement with Iran as part of its bid to make as many friends in the region as possible.

China may be betting that as its presence grows in the region, the administration of President Joe Biden will not have the resources to counter the expansion.

While expanding relations, some Arab countries remain wary of Beijing's intentions. The change puts pressure on Washington not to scale down its commitment to the region.

U.S. policymakers and lawmakers are concerned about the warming China-UAE relationship, and the Biden administration is reviewing some weapons sales to the Gulf state approved by the Trump administration, including 50 F-35 advanced fighter jets.

Washington wants a pledge from the UAE not to leak technology to a third country. This has cast a pall over the arms deal, according to the Wall Street Journal.

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