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The US Is Warning Middle Eastern Partners About Buying Chinese Weapons

  • Middle Eastern countries, including long-time US partners, are buying more Chinese weapons.
  • US officials have warned that Chinese-made weapons can’t be used alongside US-made hardware.
  • China isn’t offering direct alternatives to what the US is selling, but Washington is still wary.

US officials are warning about Chinese arms sales in the Middle East, saying they could undermine the US military’s ability to integrate with its partners in the region.

China isn’t offering weapons that would directly replace US arms, but the growing interest in what Beijing is selling reflects a longer-term desire by Middle Eastern countries to diversify their suppliers and their increasing concern about the US’s commitment to the region, experts say.

Chinese arms sales in the Middle East have increased by 80% over the past decade, a result of Beijing’s expanding relationships there and its willingness to deliver arms faster and with fewer stipulations than Washington.

Gen. Michael Kurilla, the head of US Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that there had been “a significant increase” in Chinese foreign military sales in the Middle East. Chinese officials “open up their entire catalog,” Kurilla added. “They give them express shipping. They give them no end-user agreement. And they give them financing.”

China Wing Loong II drone Dubai

A Chinese-made Wing Loong II drone on display at the Dubai Airshow in November 2017.

KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images



“If there is Chinese equipment there, we cannot integrate it with US equipment,” Kurilla said, adding that because Chinese arms sales move much faster, the US is “in a race to integrate with our partners before China can fully penetrate the region.”

Colin Kahl, formerly the US undersecretary of defense for policy, recently warned that widespread adoption of Chinese military hardware could interfere with the establishment of a network of air-defense systems that the Biden administration has been discussing with US partners in the region.

“One thing that’s not going to lead to integrated air- and missile-defense is a bunch of Chinese military equipment in these countries that won’t be interoperable with our systems and they won’t be allowed to plug into whatever network we’re building because of the counterintelligence problems,” Kahl told an audience at Chatham House, a British think tank, in July, shortly before stepping down from his post at the Pentagon.

“That’s not punitive,” Kahl added. “We’re not going to let Chinese air-defense systems interact with our networks, and I think our partners understand that.”

‘Cost-effective and prolific’

Saudi army air force F-15 fighter jet

Saudi army officers walk by F-15 fighter jets at King Salman airbase in Riyadh in January 2017.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images



Middle Eastern countries, led by the Arab Gulf states, have for decades been major buyers of US-made weapons. The trend is shifting, however. In the 2010s, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates bought Chinese armed drones at a time when the US wouldn’t export such weaponry.

Chinese arms sales to the region are “substantial and expected to continue to increase,” said Ahmed Aboudouh, an associate fellow at Chatham House. (Riyadh and Abu Dhabi recently bought large quantities of Turkish-built drones, but that reflects a desire “diversify their procurement policy” rather than a move away from China, Aboudouh said.)

China has long focused on “filling the gap of light, low-cost combat weapons systems,” which has been encouraged by the US’s hesitance to sell such arms to its partners in the Middle East and North Africa, Aboudouh said. “Hence China’s exports to the region have been dramatic.”

Patriot missile Al Udeid Qatar

US soldiers prepare a Patriot missile to fire during an exercise at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar on March 4, 2015.

US Air Force/Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman



Those sales are “an inseparable component” of China’s “worldwide strategy of becoming a major arms producer and controlling a more significant global share in weapons sales” than the US, Russia, and Europe rather than “part of a clear-eyed Chinese regional military strategy,” Aboudouh told Insider.

When it comes to air defenses, the Gulf states operate high-end US-made weapons like the Patriot and the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system, which made its combat debut when the UAE used it to shoot down ballistic missiles fired from Yemen in January 2022.

No Middle Eastern country has bought high-end Chinese air-defense systems like the HQ-22, China’s version of Russia’s S-300. (Turkey contemplated buying China’s HQ-9, an S-300 derivative, in 2013, prompting NATO warnings about interoperability issues. Ankara instead bought Russia’s S-400, which drew similar warnings and eventually led the US to kick Turkey out of the F-35 program.)

Patriot missile defense in Saudi

A Patriot missile battery at Prince Sultan air base in in Saudi Arabia in February 2020.

ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images



While the US is concerned about China’s arms sales to Middle Eastern countries, China isn’t offering direct alternatives to what the US is selling.

“Chinese arms sales to the Middle East are important because they are cost-effective and prolific, but Beijing is not selling the most strategic, high-end, technologically advanced equipment,” said Emily Hawthorne, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst with the risk-intelligence company RANE.

“If that dynamic shifted and Beijing became the provider of much more advanced equipment, it would be a critical development for the US, but that’s not likely,” Hawthorne told Insider.

‘One factor among many’

China container ship Khalifa Port Abu Dhabi UAE

A Chinese container ship at the Khalifa Port in the United Arab Emirates in May 2019.

Xinhua/ via Getty Images



Middle Eastern countries’ engagement with China has already influenced what the US is willing sell them, however.

The US approved the sale of 50 F-35s and 18 MQ-4B drones to the UAE for $19 billion in January 2021, but Washington slow-walked the deal out of concern about China’s involvement in the UAE’s 5G infrastructure and its port of Khalifa. Abu Dhabi ultimately suspended the deal in December 2021.

Since then, the UAE has bought 12 Chinese L-15 trainer aircraft and is participating in an air force exercise in China this month — the first such drill between those countries.

While deepening defense research and security ties between Beijing and the Arab Gulf states aren’t surprising to the US, they remain “concerning for US national security,” Hawthorne said, but that likely won’t be seen as a threat if those countries “maintain their currently robust security, intelligence, and political relationships with Washington as well.”

Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed China Xi Jinping

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed with Xi in Beijing in July 2019.

ANDY WONG/AFP via Getty Images



Aboudouh said the US had “specific concerns” about the UAE’s “intensifying military relations” with Beijing, as well as dismay about Saudi Arabia receiving Chinese help with its civilian nuclear program and “suspicions of a separate ballistic-missile program.”

Aboudouh argued that if the US is worried about “increasing military exchanges” between China and Arab Gulf states, it should “tackle the rising perceptions of declining US commitment to regional security.” If those countries aren’t getting what they want from the US, they “will have no option but to look for alternatives, which will undoubtedly undermine US security and military interests,” Aboudouh added.

Hawthorne said Kahl’s and Kurilla’s warnings were an outgrowth of “the many years” the US has spent “trying to scrape together an integrated air-defense system” in the region.

China’s inroads with the Gulf Cooperation Council and its rising prominence as a “trusted partner to historically US-aligned governments like the UAE and Saudi Arabia is certainly one factor hampering the ability to pull together such a system,” Hawthorne added. “But it’s just one factor among many, including varying threat perceptions of Iran among the Arab Gulf states as well as varying levels of trust between the Arab Gulf governments themselves.”

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist and columnist who writes about Middle East developments, military affairs, politics, and history. His articles have appeared in a variety of publications focused on the region.