The members of the Gulf Cooperation Council play a key role in the intensifying competition between great powers, especially the United States and China. Their role in geopolitical conflicts, regional security, and the global energy market, as well as their economic and political outreach, make them key actors in maintaining the current global system or, from a Chinese perspective, in reshaping it. Nevertheless, the six states (especially the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia) do not only try to capitalize on the growing competition between great powers, but (as the Qatargate scandal or their behaviour concerning the crisis in Ukraine shows) actively try to build influence in them to shape their foreign policy agenda, decision-making, and strategy.
While the ways in which Gulf states attempt to influence stakeholders in Washington have been investigated deeply, scholars fail behind in understanding how they try to affect China’s decision-making processes. Although the different political culture in Beijing makes such an endeavour difficult, it would be crucial to understand how they try to build influence in China directly and indirectly.
The paper aims to compare how the Gulf states build relations and influence in the United States and China and how they want to shape the great powers’ foreign policy. The main argument of the research is two-fold. First, instead of analysing Gulf states’ foreign policy in terms of alignment, hedging, or neutrality, they should be perceived as actors which are capable of capitalizing on the current developments taking place on both the global and domestic American and Chinese levels. Second, historically, the six monarchies learnt from building relations vis-á-vis Great Britain and the United States, and they will use this lesson when dealing with China and Chinese hegemony-building.
The conceptual framework of the paper will be built on the literature on alignment, status-seeking, and virtual enlargement in the realm of small state studies (and the evolving research program concerning middlepowerhood). The methodology will follow a mixture of formal modelling (provided by the updated version of small state influence-building theories) and a comparative case study structure focusing on the Gulf states. The paper will be concluded with recommendations on how Western powers should re-evaluate their relations with the Gulf states, to limit their influence, and disincentivise them from participating in Chinese hegemony-building attempts.