The Wall Street Journal has reported there are mounting concerns within the US security establishment over the UAE’s relations with China and how these may bear on the proposed sale of 50 F-35 fighter aircraft along with 18 Reaper drones.  The authors suggested that US intelligence agencies have been monitoring flights by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to the UAE, where it has been noted that a range of undisclosed military equipment continues to be off-loaded, reinforcing the view that the UAE military is continuing to look to China as well as its traditional allies in the West for military support.

Previously, defence analysts have noted America’s reluctance to share drone technology with any country in the MENA region, even previously important markets for military sales in the Gulf.  The same has been the case for European defence companies that have seen their share of Gulf sales eroding steadily over the past decade.

There should be no doubt that the Gulf region is seen emerging as an important strategic theatre for the intensifying competition between China and the West.  It also underscores the difficulties that successive US administrations have faced in efforts to reduce US security undertakings to the region.  

Previously, Washington has signalled its expectation that European allies should be prepared to take up some responsibility for safeguarding the Gulf.  However, as the Wall Street Journal report indicates; the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia are all indicating that this European involvement is not enough.

This latest report highlights ongoing trends with the value of Chinese arms sales to the Middle East region increasing by 25 per cent between 2016 and 2020, challenging the positions of the US and EU states.  Accordingly, China’s growing strategic involvement with the Gulf states is developing as a new game of high stakes strategic poker, mostly being played between the US and China, but where the Gulf states, and particularly the UAE, hold some very significant cards.