ArticlePDF Available

China's Soft-Power in the Gulf

  • Center of Economic and Law Studies
China’s Soft-Power in the Gulf
By Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat
Throughout the past two decades, China’s foreign policy strategists have embraced the use of media and
educational ‘soft-power’. Joseph Nye first introduced the term ‘soft-power’ in 1990, referring to a state’s
ability to advance national interests through culture and values.i There is growing discomfort in some
corners of the world regarding the implications of China’s rise on the international stage. Many are
doubtful as to whether a growing China can become a responsible and peaceful world power. For this
reason, officials in Beijing realize the importance of educational, cultural, and media resources to
reassure and engage the outside world and to counter opposition to China’s rise.
Analysts have highlighted China’s expanded use of soft-power in many countries, yet there has been little
discussion of Beijing’s soft-power initiative within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), where the Chinese
are actively employing soft-power resources to enhance their foothold in the Gulf Arab nations.
Educational Partnership
Educational partnership is probably the most significant element of the worldwide Chinese soft-power
initiative. Dr. Rasmus Bertelsen argues that educational institutions have become vital sources of soft-
power, functioning as bridges that share information between individuals, financial resources, and
China has tethered its soft-power efforts to the worldwide popularity of its language and culture. The
Translation and Interpreting Studies faculty of Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar recently signed a
MoU with the Chinese Embassy to collaborate in language instruction and cultural activities.iii
On November 3, 2015, the president of Qatar University led a delegation to Peking University, where
China’s government signed a USD 10 million grant establishing a Middle East research program to
advance Peking University’s ongoing research on the Middle East.iv The two universities also plan to
partner in the field of engineering.v
The quest to raise cultural awareness between China and the Emirates is also The
Hanban/Confucius Institute (which offers Chinese language and culture courses in about 100 countries)
has established a branch at Zayed University near Abu Dhabi and another at the University of Bahrain.
The Institute also offers classes in Chinese medicine and Kung-Fu, as well as a summer camp
experience in China.vii Its students comprise people of all ages from different backgrounds, including
businessmen and police officers.viii Additionally, The Chinese Learning Centre of Dubai International
Academy has announced plans to establish its first international Chinese school and New York University
in Abu Dhabi now offers Chinese language and China-related courses.ix Although there is scarce data for
the number of students presently studying the subject, the number has reportedly grown.x
Almost a decade ago, China inked an agreement with its Omani counterparts to establish a chair of
Arabic studies at Peking University.xi Alongside universities and Confucius Institutes, Chinese-language
schools are beginning to expand their presence in the Gulf. At the elementary level, Al Mushrif Chinese
School officially opened in Abu Dhabi in 2006 with backing from Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin
Zayed.xii The tri-lingual (English, Arabic, Chinese) school was the first to be established in the region.
Other efforts include study-abroad programs. China and the UAE have established several educational
exchanges in recent years, and the Chinese Scholarship Council offers full annual scholarships for
Bahraini students interested in studying in China.xiii
Beijing is also keen on strengthening its educational ties with Saudi Arabia. Several Chinese institutions
participate in the International Education and Conference on Higher Education held every year in
Riyadh.xiv Officials in China and Saudi Arabia have signed a number of agreements and treaties
pertaining to education and research. In 2009, for instance, the Saudi Ministry of Education and the China
Railway Construction Company (CRCC) signed a deal to construct nearly 200 public schools across the
kingdom.xv Kuwait and China have also signed educational agreements. Reportedly, China has
dispatched many sports coaches to Kuwait and sends students there annually.xvi
Cultural exchanges
China’s rich, varied, and ancient cultural heritage is a crucial element in Beijing’s soft-power approach to
foreign policy in the GCC and beyond. As China’s Minister of Culture Sun Jiazheng once declared,
“Culture has become the third pillar of China’s diplomacy.” Beijing has therefore been exporting various
elements of its culture through an elaborate network of cultural enterprises, interactions, and exchanges
to assure the international community that it is a civilized and peaceful growing power.
China is set to partner with Qatar in the 2016 Year of Culture that features the work of more than dozen
Chinese contemporary artists and a display of 100 pieces of silk that have been collected over
centuries.xvii The Joy of Spring Festival is already celebrated annually there.xviii Dancers from Ningxia
have staged performances in Doha and contemporary artists Cai Guo-Qiang and Yan Pei-Ming have
exhibited their work there.xix The latter has painted portraits of famous people in the Arab world.xx More
recently, Qatar’s Dragon Mart featured a Chinese Kung Fu show.xxi
Several years ago, a Chinese painting and calligraphy exhibition, hosted by the China International
Culture Communication Center, was held in Bahrain, featuring more than 70 works from over 30
renowned contemporary Chinese artists.xxii At the same time, the Bahrainis have also participated in the
Arabic Arts Festival in China, a yearly event celebrating artistic traditions from across the Arab world.
Meanwhile in the UAE, Chinese Spring Festivals are being held annually in Dubai.xxiii
Traditional Chinese medicine has become increasingly popular in the GCC and clinics have opened in all
major cities. One reason for its growing popularity, as Qatar University Professor Dr. Jacqueline Armijo
explains, is that traditional cupping, a practice that stimulates circulation, and moxibustion, a treatment
involving dried mugwort, are perceived as part of Sunnah, the traditional part of Muslim law based on the
Prophet’s words or acts and preserved in traditional literature.xxiv
Media Partnership
In recent years, media strategy has become a vital portion of Beijing’s soft-power endeavors. Since the
mid-1990s, China has been stepping up its external propaganda and has intensified its investments
toward internationalizing its media.
David Shambaugh, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington
University, asserts that China’s post-Mao international publicity focuses on several objectives. These
include the telling of China’s story to international audiences and the discounting of what is widely
perceived as adverse foreign propaganda about the threat that China poses.xxv China is systematically
establishing regular channels of global communication to carry out image management through Beijing-
produced and managed media. Cultivating partnerships with the world’s major press channels is an
important aspect of this greater campaign.
Al Jazeera has become one of the largest and most influential television channels in the world, and Qatar
has become China’s main target in Beijing’s soft-power media strategy. In fact, China’s Central Television
signed a partnership agreement with Al Jazeera in 2013 under which Al Jazeera obtained permission to
open a representative office in Beijing.xxvi Although some controversy flared up few years ago which led to
its closure, the office re-opened in 2014.xxvii Later that year, Deputy Director General and Chief Editor of
Kuwait News Agency reportedly visited China to explore means of cooperation with China’s official press
agency Xinhua.xxviii
People-to-People Exchanges
Although numerous export channels have contributed successfully to China’s solid footprint in the GCC,
its influence has been fortified by the Chinese diaspora.
Shaun Breslin, a professor of politics and international studies at the University of Warwick, UK, points out
that the vast number of Chinese workers, tourists, students, and businessmen overseas increases
interaction with local populations and plays a considerable role in shaping China’s image abroad.xxix By
far the largest group of Chinese living in the GCC are construction workers. As Chinese enterprises
increasingly participate in GCC projects, workers, both professional and non-professional, are making
more trips back and forth. With China’s growing immersion in various fields, there has also been an
increasing number of Chinese tourists, students, and businessmen.
Realizing the importance of people-to-people interactions, China and the GCC nations have introduced
several initiatives to facilitate the movements of their people. Both region’s air carriers have increased
their number of flights between the GCC and Presently, there are 21 daily flights from Dubai to
China, including eight operated by Emirates. Chinese nationals reportedly constitute around 4 percent of
Dubai International Airport’s passengers, and retailers have hired over 500 Chinese employees at the
airport’s outlets. Many other stores and hotels across the Gulf have hired Cantonese and Mandarin-
speaking staffs and have begun accepting Renminbi as a form of payment. Chinese and Gulf Arab
officials have also signed agreements regulating the employment of Chinese workers in the GCC.xxxi
China aims to expand its foothold in the GCC and the greater Middle East. Unquestionably, Beijing’s use
of soft-power will continue to be one of China’s fundamental tools in pursuit of this ambitious goal. There
is every reason to conclude that the use of soft-power will propel China to higher global economic and
political influence in the Gulf Arab nations as well as in other parts of the world.
Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a Middle East analyst based in Qatar. His areas of expertise include
China-Middle East relations, Indonesia-Gulf ties, and Muslim affairs.
x Ibid.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.