Thursday, 16th July 2020

Region/UAE: Diplomatic skills tested as Gulf backs Chinese-style human rights

The UAE was among over 50 countries that lined up on 1 July with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in unambiguous opposition to United States and other western foreign policy, voting in favour of Beijing’s imposition of a controversial national security law over Hong Kong at the 44th United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) regular session. Of the 53 countries that supported China, more than 40 have agreements to join President Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road vision for a “balanced and harmonious” infrastructure-driven new world order. Analysts have observed the UAE’s port and other investments in its growing hinterland shadow the One Belt, One Road route.

Like other authoritarian states – and some democracies such as Italy, Poland and Spain which desisted from voting against China in July – the UAE justifies its position on Hong Kong on the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. The same rationale is used to justify looking the other way when it comes to China’s brutal treatment of its Uighur (or Uyghur) minority in Xinjiang. Others voting with the PRC included Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority (PA), Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen.

Critics argue this shows how UNHRC votes are swayed more by economic factors than human rights. Few doubt the Geneva-based body has become an effective forum in which China exerts its soft power. Beijing daily Global Times observed that the 53 votes had triumphed “over 27 members that attacked and called for harsh measures against China over issues involving Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet”.

As well as alarm about the Hong Kong law, the vote came amid concerning reports of forced abortions and sterilisations of Uighur women, adding to previous reports of the horrific crackdown on the Muslim population of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Based on analysis of Xinjiang Statistical Yearbooks, the Associated Press (AP) reported that birth rates in Xinjiang fell by nearly 24% in 2019, compared to 4.2% nationwide. The issue is rising up the Sino-US agenda. AP quoted secretary of state Mike Pompeo saying: “We call on the Chinese Communist Party to immediately end these horrific practices.” Despite this, the issue has largely been ignored in the Gulf and other Muslim states.

The UNHRC vote reflects the shifting balance of geopolitical forces. In July last year, 22 states issued a letter to the council’s 41st session condemning the mass detention of Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. This was countered when 37 states issued a competing letter arguing that UNHRC work in Xinjiang and elsewhere “should be conducted in an objective… non-confrontational and non-politicised matter”. The pro-China group expressed “firm opposition” to the way some countries were “politicising human rights” and commended the PRC for “protecting and promoting human rights through development”. As the debate warmed up, one signatory – Qatar – quickly withdrew, but 13 more states and the PA had added their signatures to the pro-China letter.

This reflects a balance of forces that shows no sign of diminishing. The China-US stand-off is framed in the image of the superpowers’ leaders – although President Donald Trump rarely sees the need to advocate for the traditional liberal consensus on human rights (withdrawing the US from the UNHCR in 2018) – with Washington countering a rising military and economic challenge, and Xi leading a more assertively nationalist China. However, the UNHCR split reflects more than a ‘human rights’ versus ‘economic advantage’ narrative.

One defining factor is the shift towards greater acceptability for authoritarian rule and its international projection. Gulf states are all, by their nature, authoritarian. In several cases – such as Saudi Arabia under the Bin Salman and the UAE guided by the praetorian-minded Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan – this has been accentuated by the muscular concentration of power in the hands of family factions, as well as their projection of military power from Yemen to Libya.

The pro-China bloc vote may represent an authoritarian state of mind, but it also causes issues for foreign policy professionals. At a recent seminar hosted by the University of Singapore, a number of former senior UAE diplomats discussed their country’s foreign policy, observing that the UNHRC vote does not sit easily with the UAE’s support for the Southern Transition Council in Yemen, which is opposed to the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi; neither is it necessarily consistent with Abu Dhabi’s muscular support for Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in his fight against Libya’s officially-recognised Government of National Accord (GSN 1,104/1).

One UAE speaker at the Singapore conference suggested Abu Dhabi was able to exert influence over policy towards Iran by maintaining strong links with China. Tehran is ever more dependent on much-diminished exports of oil and China is its biggest customer – which is pushing Tehran towards a controversial new deal. However, the efficacy of the UAE’s position is questionable, given China’s opposition to US attempts to extend a conventional arms embargo on Iran (GSN 1,103/8) and the negotiations on a new 25-year co-operation agreement between Beijing and Tehran. A PRC-sponsored weakening of Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy against Iran carries the prospect that Tehran could once again start to receive sophisticated arms from China, which would go against the UAE’s strategic interest in weakening the Islamic Republic’s regional influence.

Despite the risks it might pose to its relationship with Washington, the UAE’s strong diplomatic links with China cement a growing economic inter-dependence – which is also apparent with Saudi Arabia and other energy traders – with Beijing being the world’s biggest hydrocarbons importer. Among the growing number of UAE-PRC links, a government-associated company Group42 is launching a phase three clinical trial for a Covid-19 vaccine in partnership with Sinopharm China National Biotec Group.

Contemporary political calculations pre-suppose US commitments to the region are weakening, to the point Washington no longer matters so much. The UAE seems to be banking on Trump’s attention span on Middle East matters being limited and focused firmly on personalities rather than policies. There is an assumption the US foreign policy establishment is somewhat blind to ‘Little Sparta’s’ activities (GSN 1,083/14), particularly while Saudi Arabia attracts more opprobrium and attention on the world stage.

The US, for its part, may be playing a long game: content to see Abu Dhabi strengthening itself, securing footholds astride the Belt and Road and becoming a self-sufficient military actor in the region, but instinctively confident that at heart the UAE along with the other GCC states remain western rather than eastern-inclined. China is well used to playing long games too. The UAE appears to be making bets both ways, even if Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed seems these days more inclined to visit Beijing than Washington.

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