While Beijing insists officially that its rapidly growing involvement in the Middle East—arms sales, trade deals, technology-sharing agreements, and massive infrastructure projects—is purely economic and politically neutral, Ilan Berman discerns something more sinister. As an example, Berman points to the muted reactions of such Muslim rulers as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Arabia’s Muhammad bin Salman to China’s massive and brutal persecution of the Muslim Uighurs of its northwest, noting that China has invested heavily in both Turkey and Saudi Arabia:
[W]hen the region’s most influential leaders have chosen to weigh in on China’s anti-Muslim offensive, they have done so in support of Beijing, rather than in opposition to it. . . . The result is tantamount to an abandonment of Chinese Muslims by their Middle Eastern co-religionists for economic reasons. The signal sent to Beijing is that its domestic policies, no matter how repressive, will be considered off-limits for criticism or inspection so long as the price is right. That, in turn, is likely to fuel Beijing’s current offensive of forcing assimilation and subservience among its Muslim minority by any means necessary.
Arguably the most profound effect of China’s expanding presence in the Middle East, however, has been its adverse impact on governance throughout the region. Today, the digitally enabled authoritarianism that China’s government has used to great effect to reshape its own society in a more rigid, censored, and compliant direction has begun to proliferate in the countries of the Middle East. Most blatantly, Chinese companies have long helped Iran’s clerical regime to repress its own people, [sometimes] doing so in violation of U.S. sanctions.
Egypt has similarly allowed the PRC to obtain a major stake in its communications sector and to disseminate technologies that have strengthened President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s grip on power at the expense of freedom of expression there. . . . Other regional states could soon head in the same direction. . . . The “China model” of social control could thus easily become an export commodity in Beijing’s dealings with the Middle East—much to the detriment of prospects for pluralism and democracy in the region.