Analyzing the Entrenchment of Beijing’s Digital Influence in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates

Image Source: Middle East Eye

The last several years have seen a steep accumulation of linkages between China and the Arab Gulf monarchies. As China’s energy demands have exploded and oil demand from the West has fallen, the oil-exporting Gulf countries have turned eastwards. China is now Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner and Riyadh has pledged to invest $50 billion into China. The UAE-China trade and investment relationships are also worth tens of billions of dollars. However, what began primarily as an economic relationship has evolved into one that now also encompasses aspects of security. China has signed strategic partnership agreements with both Saudi Arabia and UAE, and both countries have recently signed deals with Beijing to purchase or invest in the domestic production of armed drones. A month ago, on March 29, 2023, Saudi Arabia’s cabinet approved a decision to join the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a dialogue partner. Currently, the nine permanent members, including Iran, span across South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Saudi Arabia will be joining Egypt and Qatar as the other Middle East dialogue partners within the SCO. Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE are also reportedly planning on joining as dialogue members the following year. The growth of security cooperation between the wealthiest Arab nations and China has steadily marched forward as the region perceives a United States in withdrawal.

Unlike traditional security cooperation where the emphasis is on military exchanges, training, and weapon sales, the Middle East-China security relationship entails technology sales related to domestic surveillance and repression. During the 2011 Arab Spring, Middle East leaders witnessed the turmoil generated by social media activism as the region descended into mass protests, violence, and threats of regime change. They also felt discarded by the muted reaction from their supposed ally and guarantor of security, the United States. The rapid spread of information on the open internet had now become a threat. Almost surreptitiously, Xi Jinping ascends to the highest office within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) just a year later. His ascension would turbocharge the spread of Chinese national power beyond its borders. These events pushed many Arab autocrats to accelerate their investments into technical surveillance, censorship, and propaganda which were then used to prevent political challenges to their rule. The proliferation of Beijing’s technocratic approach in the region will have severe consequences for U.S. operations in the coming future.

Transformation without Revolution

Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, the two young revisionist leaders of Saudi Arabia and UAE, believe they are leading their peoples during a period of great geopolitical upheaval and a shift towards multipolarity in the Middle East. They both lead hereditary monarchies that are dominant regional powers with outsized global economic influence and place strategic importance on maintaining political power. However, like a vast majority of Arab governments, decades of low state efficacy, uneven societal development, and the excesses of oil-driven rentier economies have resulted in low levels of state legitimacy which the two states are constantly trying to overcome. For countries that possess such an abundance of precious natural resources, most of the wealth does not find its way into the general population. Both rulers strive to reverse decades of underdevelopment and see technology as the key to conducting massive social transformation while managing popular sentiment by suppressing dissent.

As opposed to following the American model of political and economic liberalization that has dominated their countries for decades, both leaders are looking towards another capable power with a more similar ruling architecture. Speaking at the Chinese Communist Party Congress in October 2017, President Xi Jinping offered up China’s model of governance and its management of the internet as “a new option for other countries and nations that want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” The essence of the Chinese model is to combine one-party authoritarian rule with a state-run growth model; in other words, economic growth without the Western strings of political and social liberalization. This is an attractive proposition to authoritarian regimes who desire to emulate how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) grew from a meager power to a direct competitor of the United States. Beijing is ready to share its tools.

Beijing-Style Digital Authoritarianism

Both Saudi Arabia and UAE have signed Digital Silk Road (DSR) memorandums with China. This effort within China’s gargantuan Belt and Road Initiative assists in improving telecommunications networks, cloud computing, mobile payment systems, surveillance technology, and other high-tech areas. Through the DSR, China exports digital authoritarianism, or the use of digital information technology to surveil, repress, and influence domestic and foreign populations. Most importantly, the current IT exports from China are no longer the low-cost knockoffs of old. These products are reputed to provide 80% of high-end Western capabilities at only 60% of the cost. Innovative Chinese companies like Huawei, Alibaba, and Hikvision are providing facial recognition technology, advanced analytic tools, intelligent video surveillance systems, and telecommunications infrastructure to countries worldwide.

China can develop digital infrastructure globally and to scale, enabling the establishment of a country’s entire information technology network to include both physical and virtual systems. In 2004, a year after the PRC launched the Golden Shield Project, also known as the “Great Firewall”, the CCP proposed a plan for AI-enabled policing by building upon Golden Shield to link surveillance assets nationwide with personal digitized information. This Chinese style of digital control is entirely in the realm of possibility for the wealthy states of the Gulf. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have partnered with Chinese telecommunications companies to help build their 5G networks and other key foundations for their countries’ digital future. Zain, a Saudi company, launched a 5G service using Huawei’s equipment, and the development of the smart city NEOM will likely be powered by technology from Alibaba. In the UAE, a 2018 “Police without Policemen” initiative intends to transform Dubai into the safest city in the world and the megacity now employs an AI-powered surveillance program named Oyoon – Arabic for “eyes.” Oyoon can pull the identity of anyone passing by one of the 10,000 cameras, likely made by either Hikvision or Dahua – both Chinese companies, by linking the image to a database connected to airport customs and identification cards.

In countries where the legitimacy of the government is reliant on factors other than democratic elections, there is an imperative to control public opinion. The CCP considers digital authoritarianism as a weapon for governments and views it as an important tool for security in the Middle East. If Middle Eastern governments have better population surveillance and censorship technology, then there would be less reliance on foreign security forces, like the Chinese military. Beijing intends to bolster authoritarian regimes and provide them with the capability to stifle dissent through population-monitoring information control. At the 2023 World Police Summit in Dubai, over 110 countries participated in a three-day event that showcased the proliferation of mass surveillance tools that were once believed to be widespread only in China. Arab governments are not only signing up with Beijing but are helping to proliferate these tools.

Furthermore, social media has become a popular regime tool to surveil, collect data, and act as a gauge for popular sentiment. In 2009, a Chinese report addressed the need for strategic foreign-directed information capabilities. It characterized national public relations as a weapon, described the need for setting the foreign media agenda, and treated public opinion like a big container – the more information injected, the less space for other views. The use of troll farms, bots, and human-run fake accounts to effuse pro-government propaganda, attack the opposition, amplify disinformation, and foment social tensions to suppress other voices was observed in all three countries. The New York Times claims hundreds of people worked at a troll farm in Riyadh to smother the voices of regime dissidents. In September 2019, Twitter removed 4,248 accounts originating in the UAE that were operating social media campaigns to create the perception of broad, widespread praise for the country. Likewise, government agencies, private contractors, civil society organizations, citizens, and social media influencers all take part in influence operations by exploiting recommendation algorithms and dominating foreign news headlines. China covertly sponsors pro-Beijing foreigners and “frontier influencers” to paint cheery pictures of life in China and troubled regions like Xinjiang and Tibet.

There is also evidence to indicate that these countries are sharing or at least imitating one another’s tactics and techniques in the information domain. For instance, China recently hosted a three-week “Seminar for Senior Media Staff in Arab Countries,” which brought in representatives from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. China frequently touts the Lianyungang Forum, which regularly hosts up to 40 countries annually, as an avenue to train foreign police officers, provide opportunities for information sharing, and promote Chinese security technologies. Furthermore, the CCP’s new-found interest in aggressively using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube after the 2019 protests in Hong Kong emulates tactics already employed in the Middle East. All three countries have also recently passed or strengthened laws regarding data localization and unfettered government access to online data.

Together, these countries are also rewriting the norms of international sovereignty by demonstrating a willingness to utilize technology to aid in transnational repression. None of the countries have qualms about intimidating both domestic and overseas online entities who find themselves in the crosshairs of the regimes. In 2014, China launched Operation Fox Hunt to track and repatriate accused criminals (or political dissidents) in foreign countries, such as the United States, through coercion and threats to harm loved ones. Operation Fox Hunt is still ongoing today and the CCP touts its success as retrieving 10,000 fugitives from over 120 countries. In 2018, Saudi Arabia conducted a similar operation in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, and the film “The Dissident” documents similar coercive tactics employed by Saudi operatives in an attempt to repatriate online dissidents.  

Implications for U.S. Operations in the Gulf

In a testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, Commander of U.S. Central Command, described the United States as being in a ‘race’ against China to integrate with partners in the Middle East before China can fully penetrate the region. Aside from being highly repressive, which is antithetical to the values of U.S. democracy, Chinese technology can block access to wireless networks, insert trojan horses and viruses into connected devices, or harvest data to be analyzed and exploited. The full implementation of Chinese telecommunications and information technology would pose a security threat to U.S. forces and allies operating in the region.

The proliferation of mass surveillance and Chinese telecommunications infrastructure implies that the U.S. government must prepare to operate in a “post-Western” wireless ecosystem. This requires R&D investments towards a zero-trust network model to ensure that information access would only be granted through various security checks within the network. Additionally, improvements in AI, such as realistic GAN imagery and language models like Chat GPT-4, will increase the sophistication of fake profiles and enable authoritarian regimes to further suppress dissenting voices while enabling the promotion of propaganda. U.S. messaging will be drowned out by armies of AI-powered bots and trolls.

On the other hand, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are not throwing their entire lots in with the CCP. Alongside Huawei contracts, these governments also partner with Western companies like Google, Microsoft, and BAE to provide information technology services. Unlike Arab countries with fewer means, such as Algeria, Iraq, and Morocco, Saudi Arabia and UAE have the financial capital to not rely on a single supplier of technology. Both countries have repeatedly expressed the desire for strong ties with the United States and are not willing to jeopardize that relationship. Unfortunately, this is one problem the U.S. military cannot solve on its own. Saudi Arabia and UAE have real security needs and the United States has few options to address them. Beijing simply has better tools suited for authoritarians and the United States is losing its ability to provide its Middle Eastern partners with Western equipment with Western standards, thereby allowing Beijing to shape the future operating environment in the Middle East.

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