Wendy is a Development Assistant at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. She has published research regarding security issues and Chinese influence in the Balkans. Wendy is a contributor to Fikra Forum.
Already a global leader in 5G infrastructure, China is investing heavily in a broader range of advanced technologies and seeking to introduce them globally as a means of achieving even greater economic influence. Beijing has focused heavily on three main technological areas—artificial intelligence (AI), smart and safe cities, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—within its larger advanced technology-based strategy.
So far, AI has served as the foundation of China’s technological investments in Serbia and the Gulf States. AI -based surveillance is projected to be a $62 billion industry by 2023. Beijing is using a model it pioneered in Serbia to expand its technological and military interests in the Persian Gulf. China is steadily corneringnew markets, and Gulf countries are the next critical arena where the United States needs to challenge growing Chinese influence.
The Gulf has been one of the fastest growing areas to embrace AI technology in the world. Since 2013, China has become the primary investor in the Middle East’s economic and advanced technologies sectors. By 2030, estimates suggest that AI buildout in the Middle East could be worth $320 billion with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE leading the charge.
China is using lessons it learned interacting with Serbia to improve its approach toward the Middle East by first building up basic infrastructure (e.g., bridges and railroads), then adding on technology systems, and finally launching bilateral military cooperation. This is exactly the progression China pursued in Serbia, and consequently it is the same process unfolding in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Belgrade’s overhaul of its weapons systems, beginning around 2018, has since led to Serbian and Chinese joint police patrols and Chinese-led military training for Serbian forces. This progression demonstrates China’s strategy of exploiting a country’s desire for advanced military technology as a way to establish a physical military presence in that country. China is replicating that same strategy in Saudi-Chinese joint military engagement. The two states have re-commenced joint military drills after Beijing previously supervised the training of Saudi troops.
In addition to smart cities, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia are prioritizing their consumption of drones, with a preference for armed models. The UAE purchased the Chinese Wing Loong I drones in 2016 and upgraded to Wing Loong II in 2018 after the United States declined to sellAbu Dhabi its latest weaponized drones. In 2017, China announced that Saudi Arabia was interested in buying as many as 300 Wing Loong II UAVs. Additionally, a license to produce and a deal to establish a factory for CH-4 drones in Saudi Arabia was also cemented in 2017. Both the Wing Loong and CH series were used in conflicts in Yemen, Iraq, and Libya. Last year, China continued its advanced drone sales efforts in Saudi Arabia with offers for the Blowfish A3, a machinegun-equipped helicopter UAV that could potentially use its AI capabilities to kill human targets.
Yet there are some differences between the Chinese approaches to Serbia and the Gulf that suggest room for the United States to renegotiate the relationship currently forming. Serbia’s history of anti-American views contrasts with pro-American attitudes and standing alliances in the Gulf. Despite Beijing’s inroads in the Middle East, longstanding U.S. engagement, pro-American sentiment, and strong partnerships with local governments give the United States an advantage in mitigating Beijing’s power in the region.
Beyond capitalizing on existing political ties, the United States can use China’s experience in Serbia as a model to spot pitfalls, drive incentives in the tech market, and push back on Chinese engagement in the Gulf. The U.S. should focus on product diversity, data security, and technological quality as it attempts to stem Chinese influence in the Gulf.
Chinese corporations’ links to the Chinese Communist Party, subsidized loans, low costs, and minimal red tape enable them to undermine international competitors in the AI technology market. The United States and its allies can try to undercut Beijing’s cheap prices with even cheaper prices, but doing so will likely pose a challenge, particularly in the short term. However, the United States can provide access to a wider, more diverse range of U.S. and allied country tech companies from which to choose, and the United States can offer higher quality products to clients who want safer, more transparent, and more effective options.
What’s more, the United States should emphasize the security risks of partnering with Chinese firms. China’s 2017 mandatory law—under which Chinese companies like Huawei are obligated to give intelligence to the Chinese government if requested – revealed the alarming fusion between Chinese private companies and the Chinese government. In cases when a country such as Saudi Arabia uses multiple AI purveyors alongside Chinese advanced technology, U.S. and Western allies can ensure their own tech is at least as secure as possible to mitigate compromised data.
Furthermore, the United States needs to use quality as a way to contend with Chinese products. American UAVs are considered more reliable, with better transmission, detectors, and missiles than their Chinese equivalents, and customers would choose U.S. technology if made available. In order to compete with China, the United States needs to loosen certain regulations to support U.S. competitiveness in the Persian Gulf. U.S. companies already have the foundation for success: IBM was one of the first innovators of the “Smart City” concept. Though currently, IBM, Palantir, and Cisco comprise a small percentage of companies in the global AI Surveillance market, their reliability continues to make them viable partners.