Will MBS’ Defense of China’s Uighur Crackdown Backfire in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, fourth from right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, third from left, at a meeting at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, Feb. 22, 2019 (Pool photo by How Hwee Young via AP).

Kyle Haddad-Fonda Monday, March 4, 2019

Before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrived in Beijing for a major visit late last month, he was the target of an intense lobbying effort at home and abroad. Members of the Uighur diaspora in Saudi Arabia and beyond hoped the young, powerful royal would acknowledge China’s nationwide crackdown on its own Muslim population. For the past year, a state-sponsored campaign against expressions of Islamic piety has roiled Muslim communities throughout China—especially in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, where analysts now estimate that more than 1 million ethnic Uighurs have been detained in so-called “re-education camps.”

Instead, as he was greeted warmly in Beijing, the crown prince affirmed his support for the Chinese crackdown. According to China’s Xinhua News Agency, he told Chinese President Xi Jinping that Saudi Arabia respects “China’s rights to take counterterrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security.” Although MBS, as the prince is known, did not specifically mention Xinjiang or the Uighur minority, his statement parroted the vocabulary Chinese officials have been using to justify their program of mass detention.

The crown prince’s willingness to legitimize Beijing’s tactics was not a surprise. Saudi leaders are reluctant to anger China, their country’s largest trading partner, at a moment of economic uncertainty. Riyadh is also fearful of transnational religious solidarity in many forms, including Iran’s attempts to spread its influence in the Arab world, Qatar’s backing of foreign Islamist movements, and the Islamic State’s claim to represent the world’s Muslims. That is why Saudi Arabia, on several occasions in the past, has issued statements supporting China’s harsh policies toward its Muslim minority. In 2009, for example, when Chinese security forces clashed with Uighur protesters in Xinjiang’s capital city of Urumqi, a spokesman for the Saudi Foreign Ministry proclaimed that “a good Muslim should be a good citizen, whether in China or any other country.”

The Chinese government has eagerly publicized MBS’ approval as it steps up efforts to manage its international reputation over its repression of Uighurs. Last week, China’s foreign-language state media trumpeted a tour of Xinjiang’s detention centers by diplomats from eight countries: Belarus, Cambodia, Cuba, Egypt, Pakistan, Russia, Senegal and Venezuela. Those dignitaries also attended an exhibition of photographs from alleged terrorist attacks in Xinjiang. Afterward, the China Daily claimed, the diplomats collectively “agreed that the Chinese government has made achievements in preventing terrorism, safeguarding the religious freedom of its citizens and conserving ethnic traditions and culture.”

It is little wonder that the countries most willing to speak out on China’s behalf, such as Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela, are also especially sensitive to threats of foreign intervention. The Saudi monarchy, beleaguered by criticism of its own human rights record, is in a similar situation. Moreover, Beijing, which understands that Chinese Muslims have historically accorded considerable prestige to their Middle Eastern co-religionists, especially covets endorsements from Arab leaders like the Saudi crown prince.

China’s efforts to rally international support despite the stories coming out of Xinjiang have taken on added urgency in the past month. On Feb. 9, a spokesman for Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs lambasted the Chinese government for “violating the fundamental human rights of Uighur Turks and other Muslim communities.” Pulling no punches, the spokesman accused Beijing of pursuing “the goal of eliminating the ethnic, religious and cultural identities of the Uighur Turks.” Since that statement, the Turkish government’s criticism of China has intensified. On Feb. 25, the United Kingdom joined Turkey in raising the issue of Chinese human rights abuses at the annual session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Turkey’s condemnation of China poses difficult questions for other Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, that would prefer to skirt the issue. Turkey had been China’s most vocal critic in the Middle East, but in 2017 it appeared to reach an accommodation with Beijing. In August of that year, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared that “China’s security is our security,” pledged to counter any anti-Chinese sentiment in Turkey, and even promised to ensure that Turkish state media portrayed China in a positive light.

China’s efforts to rally international support despite the stories coming out of Xinjiang have taken on added urgency in the past month.

At the time, it was apparent that Turkey’s flagging economy stood to benefit from these concessions. The Turkish government was eager to secure Chinese investment in the country’s infrastructure, as well as the telecommunications and banking industries. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also expressed interest in joining the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an economic and political venture initially designed to bring China into closer contact with the post-Soviet countries of Central Asia. China’s official media made no attempt to disguise the terms of the bargain that Turkey was prepared to make. Now that Turkey had consented to “change its tolerant attitude toward ethnic Uighurs,” one columnist wrote, it would finally be possible for trade between China and Turkey to grow unchecked. Accordingly, when Chinese security forces ramped up the detentions of Chinese Muslims last year, the Turkish government held its tongue.

So why the about-face last month? Part of the explanation may be that Turkish leaders were worried the political cost of acquiescence was becoming too high. Turkey is home to a large and vocal Uighur expatriate community, and Turkish citizens have come to expect their leaders to stand up for the Uighur cause. By early 2019, the government’s inaction had become a wedge issue within the Turkish parliament, whose opposition parties demanded formal investigations and planned anti-Chinese rallies. The Foreign Ministry finally issued its statement on the situation in Xinjiang one day after unsubstantiated rumors began trending on Turkish social media that a famous Uighur singer with close ties to Turkey had died in detention.

The Turkish government’s experience may offer a cautionary tale for Saudi Arabia. While the kingdom is home to a far smaller Uighur community and does not allow formal opposition parties, its rulers still must be wary of public opinion, in particular as it relates to the treatment of Muslims. And even the best efforts of the China Global Television Network to flood the internet with positive Arabic-language stories about Xinjiang have failed to drown out an increasingly bitter social media conversation about the plight of Chinese Muslims. As more and more news trickles out of Xinjiang’s detention centers and makes its way online, Saudi and other Arab leaders who have courted Beijing may find themselves facing mounting domestic pressure to speak out.

Kyle Haddad-Fonda is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Association, where he is an associate producer for the PBS documentary series “Great Decisions.” He holds a doctorate in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He is a frequent commentator on China’s ties to the Middle East, and his articles have appeared in such publications as Middle East Report, ChinaFile and Foreign Policy.

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