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  • Detained in Dubai

China and the UAE: The Long Game


"They have a lot in common; both are anti-democratic authoritarian governments".

The unipolar world that formed in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in which the United States reigned as the unrivalled global superpower, appears to be over. The rapidly spreading influence of China as a major economic heavyweight is creating something akin to Cold War conditions wherein countries of strategic importance to both Beijing and Washington find themselves with considerable bargaining power. Case in point: the United Arab Emirates.

Largely through its cooperation with the US over the past 30 years, the UAE has been able to position itself as a key strategic ally and asset for the United States in the Middle East, and this has enabled and empowered the Emirates to expand their own regional influence. Having attained such a vital status, the UAE, like so many emboldened Western client states in the past (think Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s, or Israel in any era), has begun to act with presumptive impunity and increasing belligerence. They feel they are in a position to map their own strategies and pursue their own objectives in the region without fear of reprisal from the Americans, and one of the new factors at play in this power dynamic is China.

China is Dubai’s top trading partner, and the UAE is China’s most significant trading partner in the Arab world; accounting for roughly 28% of China’s total non-oil trade with the region. There are over 6,000 Chinese companies in the UAE, and approximately a quarter million Chinese nationals living and working in the Emirates. The relationship has metastasized considerably in a relatively short period of time, with China heavily investing in the UAE, particularly in their ports and free zones. One Chinese-owned port near Abu Dhabi was discovered recently to have been using the facility to covertly build a military installation in the country. While the Emiratis denied any knowledge of this project, the US forced them to shut it down regardless. Observers and analysts, as well as American Intelligence agencies found it entirely implausible that Abu Dhabi was unaware of what China was doing, but the incident has barely caused a ripple in the UAE’s relations with either Washington or Beijing.

“In many ways China and the UAE are more logical bedfellows than the UAE and America,” says Radha Stirling, founder and CEO of Detained in Dubai and Due Process International, “They have a lot in common; both are anti-democratic authoritarian governments, both engage in rampant human rights abuses, both are contemptuous of labour rights and safety standards, neither respects international law or due process, they both lead the world in abuse of the Interpol system, and both are surveillance states that completely ban free speech and en