Between the Superpowers: Gulf States and Israel Navigate the New Mideast Dynamics

  • Gedaliah Afterman

    Dr. Afterman is the head of the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy and Foreign Relations at Reichman University (IDC Herzliya).

  • Dominika Urhová

    Ms. Urhová is a freelance writer for the Association for International Affairs in Prague whose research focuses on China's foreign policy in the Middle East and cross-Strait relations.

China has become increasingly active in the Middle East over the past decade, both economically and politically. Its strategy aims to expand its reach and influence, while warily avoiding the region’s chronic instability. The Gulf states and Israel have sought to leverage China’s economic growth and global influence to advance their interests. This article explores the strategies of key Gulf countries, Israel, and Iran toward China in their efforts to manage the fast-changing regional dynamics. It first examines their economic ties with Beijing and then discusses their political relations. The analysis also reviews how the intensifying superpower competition between the United States and China is shaping both the region and the foreign policies of its constitutive states. This article is part of a special issue on the responses of Gulf countries to rising Sino-American competition, edited by Andrea Ghiselli, Anoushiravan Ehteshami, and Enrico Fardella.

Though China’s ties with countries in the Middle East date back two millennia, the region has only recently gained prominence in Beijing’s foreign policy.1 China’s extraordinary economic growth has led to an increased need for energy resources, the backbone of its regional engagement. China’s growing engagement with regional powers has also gradually increased its economic, political, and military influence, inevitably raising concerns, particularly among American policy makers. Previously considered of peripheral importance, the Middle East has been moving toward the center of US-Chinese superpower competition.
The events of the past decade—including the United States’ pivot to Asia, the Arab Spring, and perceived American failures in Afghanistan and Iraq—acted as catalysts for China’s increased interest in the Middle East. Washington increasingly refocused on containing China in the Indo-Pacific, diverting some of its attention from the region. This has significantly affected the perspectives regional powers have of the United States, which still is considered their leading security guarantor. As the assumption of the United States as slowly withdrawing from the Middle East gained traction, other actors, such as China and Russia, looked for ways to leverage the opportunity and fill the perceived, but also growing, vacuum in the region. Leading Gulf countries, and to a lesser extent Israel, have started to question the US interest in fulfilling, or ability to carry out, its traditional security commitments.China’s deteriorating relationship with the United States must also be factored in. The superpower competition in the region is altering the strategic and economic calculations and decision making of the Gulf countries and Israel. These growing pressures are particularly pronounced in countries that have historically been US partners. Consequently, these states face significant challenges as they try to exploit the economic opportunities offered by China while preserving their longstanding relationships with the United States.Over the last decade, the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have moved to become leaders in the Middle East, taking over from traditional actors like Egypt and Syria. Some of these states have been recalibrating their interactions with Iran, allowing Tehran to make notable diplomatic and political gains. Israel, the so-called startup nation, is also assuming a greater strategic role in the region, particularly through the signing of the Abraham Accords. This article sees these regional powers as integral to the changing geopolitical landscape in the Middle East as well as driving forces behind some recent developments.

Facing these rapidly shifting dynamics and a region in flux, these states have been gradually adjusting to the new reality, a Middle East in which the United States is less present or, at the very least, assuming a different role than in the past. Gulf countries and Israel are increasingly prioritizing and pursuing their national interests, leading to policy decisions that at times run contrary to the US agenda.

Moreover, in responding to the growing uncertainty of superpower competition and the emergence of what they see as a more multipolar order, Gulf states are looking to avoid choosing sides. Their strategies rest on hedging between Washington and Beijing while seeking alternative partnerships, such as with other Asian powers and Israel, and developing independent capabilities, particularly in technology. From Iran’s perspective, China’s gradually increasing involvement in the Middle East can help stabilize its economy in the face of Western sanctions, as well as bolster its efforts to counter US influence.

This article contends that the challenges and opportunities stemming from China’s growing involvement in the Middle East and the intensifying superpower competition have prompted regional powers to revisit their strategies. While they will likely continue to avoid choosing sides, new opportunities for greater intraregional and interregional cooperation are emerging. Indeed, many middle powers, within and beyond the Middle East, are already initiating new cooperation agreements. With the growing uncertainty that the region continues to face, minilateral groupings present a new strategy to empower countries currently stuck in the middle of the rivalry and to facilitate more sustainable collaboration focused on mutual interests.

The article first provides an overview of China’s growing economic and diplomatic relations with key Gulf countries, Israel, and Iran, examining the scale and volume of their evolving cooperation. The subsequent sections present a detailed analysis of these countries’ relations with China and explore their strategies for managing superpower competition and changes in regional dynamics. The impact of the intensifying US-China competition on intraregional relationships is then discussed, with emphasis on the new playing field that has been created in the Middle East, in particular the Persian Gulf. The final section looks at how the countries’ strategies are interconnected and shaped by the need to secure national interests amid a series of regional and geopolitical factors.


China’s activities in the Middle East under President Xi Jinping have been trade-oriented and pragmatic. Xi launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 to improve interstate connectivity and create new trade routes, cementing China’s position as a central trading hub.2

Most Middle Eastern countries are signatories to the BRI, and research shows that the China-led initiative is gaining traction in the region and has experienced relative success compared to other areas. Out of the 266 BRI deals with Middle Eastern countries signed between 2005 and 2022, most are either ongoing or completed, with only a few of the projects canceled or halted. Of these ventures, 202 are part of China’s Digital Silk Road (DSR), an integral part of the BRI aimed at improving technological connectivity by developing vital digital infrastructure.3 The United Arab Emirates and Israel are the major beneficiaries of these DSR investments.4 In a sign that most Chinese investments target the region’s technology sector, the remaining 64 projects focus on traditional infrastructure.

China is also the largest trading partner, or one of the most important, of most countries in the region, as well as the largest foreign investor in the Middle East, surpassing the United States in 2010 and 2016 in those respective areas. China’s trade volume with states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has increased exponentially over the years, reaching a staggering $330 billion in 2021.5 Regarding foreign investment, between 2015 and 2021, China invested approximately $213.9 billion in the Middle East and North Africa, with Saudi Arabia the largest recipient at $43.47 billion. The investments in other Gulf states during that period were $36.16 billion in the UAE, $30.05 billion in Iraq, $11.75 billion in Kuwait, $7.8 billion in Qatar, $6.62 billion in Oman, and $1.42 billion in Bahrain.6

Further, China’s growing interest in the tech sector and its desire to become technologically self-reliant have been notable in its relationship with Israel. In recent years, these ties expanded to include sectors ranging from infrastructure to agriculture and education. Trade volumes grew rapidly, with the value of Israeli exports to China, as a share of all its exports to Asia, increasing from 25 to 42 percent between 2011 and 2021. Overall, Sino-Israeli bilateral trade in 2022 reached $21 billion (combining mainland China and Hong Kong).7 China is also involved in several infrastructure projects across Israel, raising security concerns not only within Israel but also in the United States.

Beijing’s economic relations with Iran have also developed. With the Iranian economy crippled by the international sanctions regime, China presented itself as a suitable and much-needed partner. Similar to the general trend in the region, China is Iran’s leading export partner. While this cooperation has the energy sector at its core, China is becoming progressively involved in other areas, mainly infrastructure. The two countries signed a 25-year strategic deal in 2021, though there is a debate about the future of the agreement, with many in Iran expressing frustration over the lack of tangible benefits.8 Beijing’s strengthening partnership with Tehran has also raised concerns both in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the United States. Indeed, China’s support has been scrutinized especially in the face of Tehran’s growing ambition to reach the nuclear threshold, which could represent an existential threat to Israel and could destabilize the Middle East.

China as a Mediator

In recent years, China’s regional engagement has expanded beyond the economic sphere. This strengthening of ties signals the growing importance of the Middle East in China’s political and strategic ambitions.9

As it looks to maintain the region’s stability and protect its economic and strategic interests, China is also seeking to position itself as a mediator in myriad conflicts. The prime example is Beijing’s role in the recent Iran-Saudi rapprochement, viewed as the first time China has helped resolve a major dispute between regional rivals.10 It also signals a potential shift in approach, as China has in the past been reluctant to engage in regional conflicts and negotiations.11

However, this is not the only example of how China has been trying to help preserve stability in the region.12 In the early 2000s, Beijing deployed a special envoy for Middle East issues, mainly focused on resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which China views as the core source of regional conflict.13 Chinese officials have in recent years presented several outlines for a potential peace agreement between the two sides, and Beijing has on several occasions offered to act as a mediator. Nevertheless, such efforts have generally been seen as symbolic rather than effective. This has been evident in China’s passive response to the ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel, during which it has offered rhetoric rather than action.


The Sino-Emirati relationship has witnessed significant growth in recent years, driven by economic interdependence, mutual technological interests, a more assertive UAE foreign policy, and the growing impact of competition between Washington and Beijing. As with other GCC countries, ties had traditionally focused on energy. However, in the last few years, there has been a shift toward infrastructure and technology as well as clean energy and green tech.

The dynamics of great-power rivalry in the Middle East have introduced both complexity and momentum to the relationship, with China and the UAE continuing to strengthen their ties despite growing US pressure. The competition presents both challenges and opportunities for the Emiratis, who seek to navigate the changing regional landscape to safeguard, and indeed maximize, benefits from all sides.

The motivations underlying the China-UAE relationship are multifaceted and shaped by each country’s strategic interests and policy goals. The UAE, with its geography and status as a major oil exporter, plays a vital role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It acts as a regional hub for trade, finance, and logistics, connecting China with markets in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. In recent years, it also has served as a gateway for oil from Iran, especially since the enforcement of sanctions in 2017.

From the Emirati point of view, China’s rise as a technological power, particularly the launch of its Digital Silk Road, gels well with the UAE’s ambition to become a global leader in technology and innovation. Cooperation in areas such as artificial intelligence, telecommunications, and space exploration can provide mutual long-term benefits.14 In March 2023, the private Chinese company Origin Space, the Laboratory for Space Research at Hong Kong University, and the UAE University’s National Space Science and Technology Center signed a letter of intent to build a space technology center in Abu Dhabi. If approved, the project will further the Sino-Emirati relationship and exchange of technology, as well as become a significant part of both the Belt and Road Initiative and the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030.15

Diplomatically, as the UAE has risen to become a prominent and influential actor in the Middle East, its importance to China’s broader strategy to increase its global influence has also grown. The UAE’s relatively stable political environment and proactive foreign policy also make it an attractive partner for Beijing as it seeks to develop a more active approach in a region in flux. The importance that the UAE and Saudi Arabia hold for the future of China’s regional and global plans was recently demonstrated when the BRICS group of developing countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), largely led by Beijing, invited them to join, constituting the organization’s first global expansion in 13 years.

These factors have led the UAE to view Beijing as a long-term strategic partner. It is keen on diversifying its economy beyond oil, and China—with its vast market, investment capacity, and advanced technology—can play a key role. For the Chinese, the UAE’s growing leadership in the region, its position as a regional trading hub, and its close relations with the United States make it a valuable partner.16 China’s leadership in technology and innovation, and its expertise in infrastructure development, have also aided the UAE’s ambitions for domestic growth. Chinese companies are involved in several major infrastructure projects in the country, contributing to its urban development and economic modernization.

In addition, engaging with China allows the UAE to balance its international relations. While Abu Dhabi maintains a strong alliance with Washington, developing ties with Beijing provides additional diplomatic leverage and reduces over-reliance on any one superpower.17 As US-China competition over technology intensifies, Chinese companies like Huawei face substantial resistance among American allies. However, Beijing’s partnerships and cooperation with the Middle East are deepening, with a considerable number of 5G network contracts awarded to Huawei. Since 2019, most GCC telecom firms have signed such deals. With the Emirati company G42 launching a $10 billion fund to invest in late-stage technology firms in 2022, its engagement with China will accelerate.

Thus, the evolving Sino-Emirati relationship demonstrates a more balanced approach to foreign policy. While continuing to foster strong ties with the United States, the burgeoning cooperation with China allows the UAE to reap the benefits of economic and technological collaboration while mitigating the risks associated with relying exclusively on a single and perhaps less reliable global power.18 The shifting dynamics in the UAE-China-US triangle were demonstrated when the UAE suspended talks on an F-35 fighter jet deal with the United States in 2021, after Washington had demanded that Abu Dhabi abandon cooperation with Huawei on its 5G network as a prerequisite for the agreement.19

More recently, the escalating great-power rivalry and the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have influenced China’s approach to the Middle East. Beijing’s apprehension about potentially facing extensive Western economic sanctions, like those imposed on Russia, and the ambivalence of US allies in the Middle East regarding choosing sides in the war, have enabled it to expand the use of the Chinese yuan with oil-rich Gulf countries for select transactions, including energy purchases, and to collaborate with the UAE on trials of cross-border exchanges of digital yuan. Along these lines, in August last year, China initiated a pilot program with Thailand, Hong Kong, and the UAE to test an international transactions platform, mBridge. This could soon prove advantageous for trade relations with the UAE.20

In the defense sector, too, China has been making inroads. The UAE purchased Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles in 2016 and 2018 after the United States declined to sell its latest weaponized drones, citing the impact of the war in Yemen.

Looking forward, China’s strategy and proven ability to provide both infrastructure and technology aligns most with the visions of regional leaders, including the Emiratis. Disenchanted with US policies, the UAE is seeking more strategic independence, including in its relationship with Washington. However, rather than choosing sides between the superpowers, the UAE is likely to continue to favor a strategy of multiple partners, including the United Staes, China, India, and Japan, among others.


China’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has historically revolved around its interest in oil. However, similar to the case of the UAE, recent years have seen the strengthening of the Sino-Saudi partnership. In 2016, Saudi Arabia and China elevated their cooperation and signed a comprehensive strategic partnership. Six years later, Riyadh hosted the China-Gulf Cooperation Council summit, the highest-level diplomatic event between the two entities in the history of the People’s Republic of China. During the summit, China and Saudi Arabia signed several cooperation agreements across various sectors, including technology, valued at approximately $30 billion.21

Among other companies at the meeting, Huawei reached a strategic agreement with the Saudi government. The deal, which included cloud computing and the construction of high-tech complexes across different Saudi cities, was signed despite continual US efforts to prevent the tech giant from gaining a significant foothold in the region.22 The agreement has raised concerns among the United States and its allies about the potential security risks.23

Two factors play a significant role in Saudi Arabia’s calculations regarding the trajectory of its relationship with China. First, the entrenched uncertainty of the Saudi government regarding the future US role in and commitments to the Middle East has acted as a catalyst for the kingdom to look elsewhere, particularly China, for partnership. Second, like many other oil-rich countries, Saudi Arabia seeks to diversify its economy and move away from oil dependency. Chinese investment presents an attractive opportunity.24

It is this pragmatic acknowledgment—that to protect its interests in the face of regional and global tensions, the kingdom must expand its diplomatic and strategic ties beyond its relationship with the United States—that fuels Saudi Arabia’s approach to the Sino-American competition and its interactions with the two superpowers. Saudi Arabia finds itself in an unprecedented situation and is forced to carefully balance between its most important security provider, the United States, and its increasingly important economic partner, China.

The core of the US-Saudi relationship lies in their common interest of preserving regional stability, security, and order. As such, even Beijing recognizes the importance of accepting a US presence in the Middle East. However, while Saudi Arabia does not aim to replace Washington as its leading security provider, Beijing is an attractive economic partner, especially given the synergy between the kingdom’s Vision 2030 and China’s Belt and Road Initiative.25

China’s growing interest in the kingdom has led to rapidly expanding cooperation. Sino-Saudi trade has skyrocketed, with China’s becoming Saudi Arabia’s biggest trading partner, particularly in the oil and chemical sectors. However, they have gradually shifted from a sole focus on oil to a growing engagement in other areas, including high tech, communications, and transportation. Saudi Arabia has also become the largest regional recipient of Chinese investment and contracting.26 Vision 2030 and the BRI were, and continue to be, the main drivers behind the expansion of this economic cooperation.

Outside of economic cooperation, Saudi Arabia, similar to the UAE, looks for ways to diversify its security cooperation and purchases of weapons. According to Chinese sources, following the Zhuhai airshow in November 2022, Saudi Arabia spent $4 billion on weapon purchases from China, which is significantly more than in previous years.27 Some Middle Eastern sources also argue that while China is already supplying drones to the kingdom, two new major deals are on the way. These are expected to include a range of weapons, from reconnaissance drones like the Sky Saker FX80 to air-defense systems such as the HQ-17AE.28

Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia has shown an increased interest in technological cooperation with China. In 2022, the two countries struck several deals in artificial intelligence, advanced computing, and technology. They include cooperation in space technology, unmanned aerial vehicle payload systems, and satellites, among other areas.29

With this expanding technological cooperation, Saudi Arabia could become a regional AI hub serving both the Middle East and Central Asia. Beijing is viewed as a natural partner for technological cooperation, as the kingdom can leverage China’s Digital Silk Road initiative to speed up the development of its high-tech sector. Among the most notable characteristics is the capability of Chinese firms to implement digital infrastructure projects quickly and at a relatively low cost. Additionally, regarding human capital, China’s research institutions and universities, which have been successful at generating patents in AI and deep learning, among other areas, are well positioned to help Saudi Arabia with its emerging-technology sector.30

The kingdom has also expanded its diplomatic ties with China, and the two countries avoid conflict or meddling in each other’s internal affairs, notably in relation to human-rights violations. Saudi Arabia’s participation in the China-mediated rapprochement with Iran was viewed as a prime example of the kingdom’s strategic hedging in the face of intensifying superpower competition, signaling to the United States that it will not be a passive actor in the region’s diplomacy and will actively pursue its self-interests.

The deal is seen as potentially reshaping order in the Middle East. Not only is it the first major China-brokered diplomatic deal in a sphere of US influence, it holds the potential to realign the region’s leading powers and transform what has been a long-lasting Arab-Iranian divide into a more complex regional dynamic. Many analysts frame these developments as signs of an emerging multipolar world order.31

In response to this changing dynamic, Saudi Arabia has been taking steps to reposition itself, decreasing its overdependence on Washington and diversifying its ties.32 Since Mohammed bin Salman assumed the post of crown prince in 2017, the kingdom’s foreign policy has become more assertive, focused on preserving Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty and making its national interests the main priority.

Like other Gulf countries, the kingdom is adopting a more pragmatic approach to the superpower competition, which would allow its strategic partnership with the United States to coexist alongside its increasingly important economic cooperation with China. As part of these efforts, in March 2023, the kingdom agreed to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a dialogue partner. The forum, led by China and Russia, focuses primarily on economic, energy, and regional security. This is the first time that Saudi Arabia became a member of a multilateral organization driven by Eastern powers. While some pundits argue that the SCO is too divided to significantly alter the existing balance of power or seriously affect the kingdom’s relations with the United States, it serves as a reminder of Riyadh’s progressively changing approach to foreign policy.33 Saudi Arabia’s positive response to the invitation to join the BRICS further indicates the desire to avoid dependence on the United States and pursue other economic, diplomatic, and security agreements. In August 2023, Saudi Arabia held a conference very much aligned with BRICS positions and focused on efforts to achieve a solution to the Ukraine war.

Despite these developments, it is wrong to assume that the kingdom plans to abandon its most important alliance and oppose the United States. Saudi Arabia and China both prefer an American presence. While China shows a growing interest in the political developments in the region, it is likely to remain cautious. It also lacks the military capacity to replace the United States as regional security guarantor.34 Despite its rhetoric, China has enjoyed the relative stability afforded by the American presence, which allows Beijing to operate in the region without incurring unnecessary security risks and costs.35

At the same time, Saudi Arabia has no interest in choosing sides and has adopted an “open to everyone” policy.36 The kingdom’s current and future steps will be determined by its own strategic interests, which are likely to remain focused on successfully diversifying its economy while also reinforcing its image as a major force in the Middle East.


In recent years, the Israel-China relationship has experienced positive momentum. Beijing’s interest in Israeli technology peaked in 2018, and Chinese companies have participated in national infrastructure projects. Despite a relatively recent downturn in Chinese investments in Israel due to factors such as Beijing’s altering foreign-currency regulation, the Covid-19 pandemic, and a business environment changing due to growing American pressure, overall trade between the two countries continues to set new records. Indeed, China is on track to become Israel’s second-largest trading partner.

Chinese sources indicate that the mutual trade volume reached almost $23 billion in 2021, with substantial growth potential, considering the ongoing bilateral negotiations for a free-trade agreement.37 However, escalating tensions between the United States and China are affecting the direction and scope of Sino-Israeli ties. Israel finds itself caught between its two largest single-country trading partners, trying to navigate the increasingly complex environment and balance its economic and security interests.38

While Beijing seeks to expand cooperation with Israel, particularly in the infrastructure and technology sectors, Israel faces growing pressure from Washington to limit engagement in precisely these areas. During a May 2023 speech in the Knesset, Kevin McCarthy (R-California), the speaker of the US House of Representatives, claimed that China aims to “steal” Israel’s technology.39 The United States has also repeatedly raised concerns over potential espionage at Haifa Port, intellectual property theft, and general threats to Israel’s national security. Scholars and officials in both countries have voiced calls for Israel to “choose sides” in the superpower competition.40

Israel sees such calls as unfounded and counterproductive. It has no real choice. The United States is not only its security guarantor but also its closest and most important ally. The strong relationship is based on shared values and on deep, practical cooperation across various fields, including security, diplomacy, business, and the military.41

Beijing, for its part, recognizes the nature of the relationship, which makes Israel both more and less attractive as a partner. On the one hand, the growing pressure from the United States impacts the scope of Sino-Israeli relations, making it challenging to develop China’s areas of interest and harness opportunities in Israel and its booming technology sector. On the other hand, being a close ally of the United States and a technological leader makes Israel a potentially valuable resource for Beijing, particularly as it seeks to become technologically self-reliant.

Consequently, Israeli policy makers face a dilemma in developing a strategy to safeguard the US alliance while expanding commercial ties with China in non-sensitive sectors. As Beijing becomes an increasingly important trading partner and its regional footprint grows, Israel seeks to encourage foreign investment and trade while formulating clear policies to address the concerns of its most important ally.

In response to American pressure, Israel established a foreign investment advisory committee in 2019.42 It reviews foreign investments (not exclusively from China) and makes recommendations, though these are not binding. Initially, the screening guidelines were vague and the process lacked transparency. To address some of these issues, pointed out regularly by the United States, the Israeli government in late 2022 introduced a slightly improved mechanism with more precise definitions and policies, promoting transparency for all stakeholders.43

These changes could, over time, foster better understanding with US officials, prevent unsuccessful Chinese bids for projects, offer increased certainty to foreign investors, and guide Israel-China relations toward mutually beneficial sectors while safeguarding Israel’s national interests. Other initiatives, such as the US-Israel technology dialogue that was announced during President Joe Biden’s visit to the country in July 2022, also aim to provide a platform for enhanced bilateral technological cooperation in areas where China, too, has an interest.44

Although Israel has become more attentive to US concerns, American pressure and demands have also increased. The current gap between the allies partly results from the rapidly shifting US perception of China from economic competitor to primary strategic threat—a view Israeli officials do not share.45

It appears that as superpower competition intensifies, a new trend is emerging: The Biden administration increases pressure on China in Asia, and China responds in the Middle East. The region is thus becoming another theater for this rivalry. As Israel becomes more engaged in the region, particularly in the Gulf, the potential for friction with the United States is likely to grow.

While the measures mentioned above represent progress in managing complexities between Israel and Washington regarding China, recent developments, particularly Beijing’s growing regional involvement, may soon render them obsolete. Israel will then need to find new ways of managing its ties with the superpowers without jeopardizing its relationship with either one.

China, for its part, has demonstrated its willingness to attack Israel on the international stage when it serves its interests. This was clearly demonstrated in the Israel-Hamas war launched in October 2023.46 Following a trend that emerged in the 2021 conflict with Hamas, China condemned Israel at the United Nations Security Council and through its official media in an attempt to discredit the United States and counter criticisms of its own treatment of the Uyghur minority. Beijing refused to condemn or even mention Hamas, aligning with Arab states and positioning itself as a counterbalance to the United States.

The latest Gaza war has brought to the surface the limitations of the China-Israel relationship and has probably restricted prospects for the establishment of a closer political partnership. While trade and economic relations are likely to continue, the atmosphere has been affected by China’s lack of support for Israel in a time of crisis. China has shown that Israel does not rank highly in its calculations and that damage to its relationship with Israel is manageable in the context of its broader regional and geopolitical strategy.

With diminishing room for maneuver between Washington and Beijing, Israel seeks to expand its economic, diplomatic, and security relations with neighbors and emerging powers in the East. The Abraham Accords have provided Israel with an opportunity to build and leverage its ties with important regional players, such as the UAE, and advance its relations with Asian partners like Japan, India, South Korea, and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The new minilateral group I2U2, consisting of India, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and the United States, is perhaps the prime example of Israel’s increasing potential to diversify its international ties.


Iran’s relationship with China is somewhat different from the pattern observed elsewhere in the Middle East. Unlike the economies of the GCC countries and Israel, Iran’s has been crippled by Western sanctions, particularly after President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). Amid its growing international isolation and decaying economy, Tehran adopted a “look East” strategy, seeking alternative partners. Although the formulation of the policy goes back to the early 2000s, Trump’s “maximum pressure” was one of the main factors triggering its implementation.47

As a result, China and to a lesser extent Russia became Iran’s economic and political lifelines and friends in its fight against US influence in the region. In 2016, China and Iran elevated their relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership, culminating in the signing of a 25-year strategic agreement in 2021. Though the specificities of the deal are vague, it indicates the relative importance of Iran in Beijing’s foreign policy. In 2022, China was Iran’s largest trading partner for the 10th year in a row. In hopes of repairing its economy, Iran is also on track to become a permanent member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.48

Upon Ebrahim Raisi’s inauguration as Iran’s president in 2021, the consensus was that the administration would follow the “look East” policy and pursue greater collaboration with Russia and China. Raisi himself stated that the basis of his foreign policies would lie in establishing peace and security, and focusing on socioeconomic development. He has also contended that Iran will try to balance its relationship with the West and the East, using the country’s interests as a guiding compass.49 This has been seen as an attempt to return to the “Neither East nor West” principle that had characterized Iran’s foreign policy strategy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.50

However, several factors were considered significant obstacles to improving the Sino-Iranian partnership: The failure to restore the JCPOA, the growing need to defuse regional tensions, particularly with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and US unilateral sanctions all limited Tehran’s cooperation with Beijing.

While regional tensions seem to be easing up as of mid-2023, especially thanks to the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement and Iran’s seeming eagerness to resolve disputes with the GCC countries, progress on the JCPOA has been difficult to achieve. Without the JCPOA revival and lifting of US sanctions, Iran will continue to struggle to attract Chinese investment and other forms of economic cooperation. Given that economic exchanges are at the core of their relationship, the failure to resolve the nuclear issue significantly affects the scope of China’s involvement in Iran.51

Additionally, despite the promising 25-year deal, which was supposed to include China’s $400 billion investment in Iran, the Sino-Iranian relationship has faced a rocky path. Although some economic and diplomatic advancements have materialized, the expansion rate of their ties is nowhere near that of China’s strengthening of ties with Iran’s neighbors and adversaries, which has raised frustrations in Tehran.52

Nevertheless, in February 2023, Raisi visited China for the first time since assuming the presidency. This was seen by many as part of Iran’s efforts to deepen its cooperation with China and move further toward the East amid growing geopolitical tensions with the United States. The high-level visit saw the two presidents reiterate their determination to deepen the bilateral relationship and accelerate the implementation of the 25-year deal. They also signed a series of agreements ranging from infrastructure cooperation to disaster relief and cultural exchanges, and they discussed security cooperation.53 Raisi did not, however, shy away from expressing his frustration with the slow pace of cooperation, stating that “the development of relations between Iran and China has been moving forward, but what has been done is far from what should be done.”54

Besides economic and security cooperation, Iran and China jointly advance a narrative heavily criticizing US and Western foreign policies. This alignment of their public perspectives has been evident throughout the partnership.55 The 2023 summit saw Xi and Raisi express their disenchantment with the United States and call for the restructuring of the world order, with the Chinese president stating that American policies “caused damage to international norms and global peace and security.”56

The two leaders also called for the return to the JCPOA, which is necessary for a successful implementation of the large economic deals that are part of the 25-year agreement. Nevertheless, beneath the surface, Iranian experts have cautioned that China’s primary interest in reviving the JCPOA should not be viewed as its joining Iran’s fight against the West. On the one hand, China has growing concerns about a potentially nuclear Iran and the effects this would have on regional and global stability. On the other hand, it perceives the JCPOA as economically beneficial, and the failure to revive the deal could endanger China’s interests in the region due to the potential of escalating tensions between Iran and its rival countries, particularly in the Persian Gulf.57

Although Raisi has repeatedly stated that Iran aims to diversify its interaction with countries worldwide, it is clearly moving toward the East, China in particular. Nevertheless, Beijing is in a position to decide when and to what extent to further this partnership, especially in terms of implementing tangible aspects of their agreements.58 In making such calculations, China looks beyond the bilateral ties and considers both geopolitical and economic issues, including its engagement with the United States, the Western sanctions on Iran, and its desire to balance relationships with Iran and the Gulf countries.

The relatively gloomy state of the Iranian economy and its business environment, which makes it difficult to attract Chinese companies and investment opportunities, is also a factor. As a result, Iranian authorities are becoming increasingly wary of China’s future steps and question its credibility as a reliable partner in challenging the US dominance in the Middle East.59


The complexities emerging from the intensifying superpower competition between China and the United States have prompted Gulf countries and Israel to re-evaluate their strategic calculations and find new ways to navigate the new dynamics. At the center lie their ambitions to strategically hedge between the two powers, maintaining their partnerships with Washington while grasping the economic opportunities offered by Beijing. For Iran, too, China’s growing presence in the Middle East has brought about changes in its strategic calculations and prompted it to use the changes to its advantage.

The evolving strategies of the regional powers discussed here, toward both China and the United States, are shaped by a few interrelated trends. First, the changing role of the United States, and the perception that it is gradually withdrawing from the region, have allowed actors like China and Russia to exert influence and become alternative sources of cooperation. As a result, as the Middle East has moved toward multipolarity, strategically ambitious American partners like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel are looking to manage the uncertainty stemming from Washington’s changing regional role. In doing so, these states are looking to manage risks and leverage opportunities to enhance their strategic autonomy by diversifying their partnerships.

The second is the rise of China, its growing emphasis on the Middle East since the Arab Spring, and, in recent years, its shift from energy to infrastructure and technology. Beijing’s strengths in these areas align well with the national interests and future visions advanced by all countries discussed in this article. The third is the rapidly changing regional landscape: Saudi Arabia and the UAE vying for more influence in the region and beyond as they seek to achieve greater independence; concerns over the Iran nuclear program and what seems to be the failure of efforts to stop Tehran from reaching the nuclear threshold; and Israel’s positioning itself as a strategic player in the region through the Abraham Accords.

These factors have led to a push for de-escalation and realignment across the Middle East over the past couple of years. The Abraham Accords, concluded in 2020, represent a milestone in bringing Israel into the region’s middle-power dynamics. While the bilateral deals came, to an extent, in response to a sense that the United States is seeking to minimize its regional presence, they also created new opportunities for strengthening cooperation between Middle Eastern countries and their Asian counterparts. Feelings, on the one hand, of growing confidence among Gulf states, and of geopolitical uncertainty on the other, have led to a removal of long-lasting barriers, especially when it comes to their ties with Israel, and have paved the way for the establishment of new regional and cross-regional cooperation frameworks.

Indeed, from the middle powers’ perspectives, cross-regional partnerships—such as the recently established I2U2 and the growing Israel-Japan-UAE trilateral cooperation—represent attempts to exercise strategic autonomy and bring the two regions closer together. This, in turn, aims to create sustainable and long-lasting cooperation that reaches beyond the two superpowers. However, the success of these initiatives will depend on the participating countries’ abilities to refrain from focusing too heavily on the security sphere and instead to direct their attention to issues of common interests that can advance a positive, nonconfrontational cross-regional agenda.

China’s growing presence in the Middle East has also directly prompted Washington to re-engage in the region on a larger scale, using these emerging minilateral agreements and cross-regional collaboration as platforms to exert more influence and to reassure middle powers of its commitment.60 Not only is the United States a part of the I2U2, but Biden and the leaders of India, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia also unveiled the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor at the 2023 G20 Summit in New Delhi. Some analysts argue that this new infrastructure project could stand as a clear competitor to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.61

However, from the Gulf countries’ perspectives, their engagement with the new economic corridor does not necessarily mean using it to replace the BRI. Instead, taking part in both the Beijing-led and the Washington-led initiatives positions their economies favorably within the current dynamics, making them essential economic and political partners for both China and the United States.62

The political dynamics in the Middle East will inevitably be influenced by the ongoing presence of both the United States and China. As these superpowers vie for dominance, economic benefits, and deterrence, regional entities will continue to navigate between them, simultaneously seeking middle-power alternatives to reduce dependence on any single superpower. The most recent flareup in violence between Hamas and Israel will also further impact the dynamics of superpower competition in the region. Washington’s decision to send the Ford strike group to the Middle East in response to the Hamas attack was aimed in part at securing its regional position. China’s rhetoric, while perceived by many as anti-Israel, has a more elaborate goal of degrading and containing the US presence in the region. China could, however, seek to play a more substantial role after the war. Regardless of the positioning and pressures exerted by the United States and China, regional actors will increasingly have more say in shaping the combination of engagements and allegiances they choose to form with and among the superpowers in the future.


  • Gedaliah Afterman

    Dr. Afterman is the head of the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy and Foreign Relations at Reichman University (IDC Herzliya).

  • Dominika Urhová

    Ms. Urhová is a freelance writer for the Association for International Affairs in Prague whose research focuses on China's foreign policy in the Middle East and cross-Strait relations.

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