China’s global ambitions continue to be amply demonstrated through Beijing’s determined pursuit of its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) which, since 2013, has seen the emergence of world-girdling infrastructure links with more than 150 partner countries, including the Gulf states and with the EU.  It is widely acknowledged that the BRI is more than simply China’s main approach to international trade and must be understood as a central pillar of China’s foreign policy.

Last month, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, visited Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Oman.  He made clear China’s enthusiasm to conclude a free trade agreement with the GCC, arguing that this would help to expand China-GCC ties still further and enable the Gulf states to have access to preferential trade status agreements.  At the same, time there would be benefits for China, which remains reliant on 35 per cent of its energy imports from the Gulf.

While the Gulf states continue to embrace China’s outreach, with China-GCC cooperation expanding significantly over the past 15 years, Gulf leaders also seem wary that becoming overly dependent on the BRI could threaten relations with other major powers, not just the US but also in Europe and South Asia.

Although they are beneficiaries of the BRI as well, the EU and UK similarly seem to have recognised, albeit belatedly, that cooperation with China brings potential concerns as well as benefits.  Accordingly, Europe is now embarking on its own connectivity plans with the EU set to discuss an alternative “connectivity partnership” with India at a leaders’ summit on 8 May.  The US President Biden has also pitched to the UK the idea of a rival Belt and Road plan.

All this appears to be leaving the Gulf states with an interesting choice of alternative trading partnerships.  It should, therefore, hardly be surprising that the leaders of the GCC member states are not rushing to accept China’s free trade blandishments and may be looking to utilise the BRI, not just for its direct economic benefits, but also as a bargaining tool with the EU and the US.