15dbc4f35ea58210VgnVCM200000e66411acRCRDapproved/thenational/Articles/Migration/2009-Q4They've come a long way in 60 years: and so have we05dbc4f35ea58210VgnVCM200000e66411ac____They've come a long way in 60 years: and so have weWhen the People's Republic of China was established it was atheist, communist, revolutionary pro-Soviet, anti-West, militaristic, third worldist and, in its own way, republican.<p>When the People's Republic of China was established it was atheist, communist, revolutionary pro-Soviet, anti-West, militaristic, third worldist and, in its own way, republican. In other words, it had the hallmarks of a state inimical to what the Gulf states - many thenstill in their infancy, others not yet independent - would turn out to be.
So it is little wonder that the Gulf states had to wait for the Chinese revolution to mature (some would say mellow) before opening up to Beijing, and vice versa. The UAE established relations with the PRC only in 1984. But in keeping with the great geopolitical shift of the 21st century, these relations are now developing at an intense pace.</p>
<p>The Gulf states, in their quest to diversify their dependency on western powers and the US in particular, and in a calculated bid to be fully fledged participants in the much-anticipated Asian age, now see China as a natural and essential partner. The first foreign visit by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was to Beijing, not Washington. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, was welcomed to China in August with an honour guard.</p>
<p>The terms of the relationship are simple. China needs secure energy supplies to fuel its growth and already buys almost 50 per cent of its imported oil from the Middle East. For the Gulf states, flush with capital and increasingly wary of the West, the Chinese market is immense, growing, and hungry not just for oil but also for petrochemical and metallic products, two industries that the Gulf states are heavily developing.</p>
<p>China's products already flood the poorer parts of the Middle East, and though the Gulf states may still be hooked on high-end western products, the success of DragonMart in the UAE suggests they may well follow suit.
This relationship is certain to grow, and with it will come not only trade and investment opportunities, but societal interaction. Already, Chinese officials express gratitude for the rapid financial assistance the UAE and Saudi Arabia provided in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake ($50 million each). The Look East strategy will soon produce Arabs fluent in Mandarin (Chinese diplomats already surpass their western counterparts in the use of Arabic) and efforts to stimulate cultural exchanges are flourishing. And while bilateral trade and investment still pale in comparison with the Gulf's traditional partners, the trajectory of tomorrow's global economic flow is unmistakable.</p>
<p>The successful Chinese model of balancing economic development, state modernisation and political control has an unmistakable and reassuring appeal for countries that want carefully to manage their economic and political transformation.
What the Gulf states also appreciate about modern China is its no-nonsense, businesslike approach to international affairs. With China, there is no legacy of colonialism, no unwarranted scrutiny of domestic issues, no political, labour or environmental conditionality, no cumbersome domestic politics to navigate, no political toxicity, and no fear of strategic adventurism. The Dubai Ports World episode in the US simply would not happen with China.</p>
<p>But attractive as the Middle Kingdom may be, it is not about to overtake the US as the key strategic partner for the Gulf states. The two pillars of its foreign policy - a calculated reluctance to take sides and a principled non-interference in domestic affairs - guarantee that China will make no enemy in the region, but also ensure it will keep a secondary strategic role, not necessarily to the displeasure of a risk-averse Beijing.</p>
<p>In fact, from America's costly and messy involvement in the region, China has learnt that there is nothing to gain from being enmeshed in regional disputes. It is unwilling to expend resources and capital on the thankless task of resolving intractable Middle Eastern conflicts. The US already spends billions of dollars to secure the sea lanes so crucial for China's energy security, and if US crisis management is successful, China can savour the resulting stability. If not, China can delight in the failure of a geopolitical rival suspected of seeking regional hegemony and control over oil.</p>
<p>China certainly offers security protection as a member of the UN Security Council, but it cannot project power, nor does it even seek to provide security guarantees. Its massive investment in military capabilities is to protect interests close to home, not to compete with US military primacy in the Gulf, despite speculation that the Chinese investment in the Pakistani port of Gwadar paves the way for a future naval presence.</p>
<p>As a military supplier, China cannot yet compete with the range of technology, weapons systems and training provided by western firms, but has an undeniable advantage: it is ready to sell weaponry that western states would deny to the Gulf states. In a show of independence in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia acquired long-range missiles from China - a warning to Washington that it can satisfy its defence needs elsewhere.</p>
<p>China is not without geopolitical weight relevant to the Middle East, in particular on Iran. Despite voting for UN sanctions and claiming that it shares the concerns of the Gulf states about Iran's nuclear pursuits, China hasn't shown much teeth, disliking the language of pressure and coercion adopted by other powers. Yet China's extensive presence in Iran (it supplies a third of Iran's petrol imports and is a key investor in its oil sector) comes with significant but untapped leverage. The Gulf states are not pressing Beijing to harden its position towards Tehran for fear of a backlash, but the current rapprochement should aim at aligning strategic priorities as well.</p>
<p>Ultimately, the Gulf states and China are both driven by realistic, pragmatic interests that could shape the coming century. For states considered the world's backwaters only decades ago, that is quite a leap.