Chinese ‘Black Site’ in Dubai underscores Beijing’s Growing Presence in the U.A.E. and the Gulf

On August 16, the Associated Press published the account of Wu Huan, a Chinese woman who claimed that she had been detained in a secret Chinese prison in the UAE earlier this year. Although ‘Black Sites’ like the detention center Wu was held in have become a common fixture within China’s borders, this would be the first known Chinese state-run prison in a foreign country. Following the arrest of her fiancée, Wang Jingyu, by Dubai police in April, Wu travelled to the Emirates in hopes of securing his release. However, just over a month after Wang’s arrest, Wu was taken into custody and handed over to a group of ‘Chinese officials’ – one of whom Wu identified as Chinese Consul General Li Xuhang – who then transferred her to a clandestine detention center just outside the city.


Despite Wang being released from custody the same day she was arrested, Wu was repeatedly questioned about her fiancée, a dissident who had been sought by Beijing for criticizing the government’s lack of transparency following a series of deadly clashes between Chinese and Indian troops in the summer of 2020. In the end, Wu was released but not without consequence, as she claimed that her captors had coerced her into signing ‘legal documents’ describing Wang’s alleged ‘harassment.’ The couple has since fled to the Netherlands, where they are seeking asylum.


Not only does Wu’s testimony provide a chilling account of China’s expanding crackdown on dissidents, corrupt officials, and ethnic minorities, but it also highlights China’s growing presence in the Persian Gulf. Since the unveiling of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, Beijing has greatly expanded its influence in the Gulf - a region with deep and long-standing ties to the United States – by forming strong regional partnerships with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the UAE. Much like the United States, China – which recently became the world’s largest importer of oil and natural gas - sees the free flow of cheap and affordable energy supplies from the Persian Gulf as critical to its long-term strategic and economic goals.


This has been especially evident in its dealings with Saudi Arabia. Unlike the US-Saudi alliance, which is of great strategic importance to both sides, Beijing’s sole focus in its relationship with Riyadh is oil. As a result, China has largely embraced the agenda of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite his roles in the costly Yemeni Civil War and the assassination of Washington Post Journalist Jamal Khashoggi.


Conversely, Beijing’s relationship with Iran has much greater potential. Believing Tehran to be a strong regional power and a vital gateway to the Central Asian market, China and Iran recently signed a 25-year strategic agreement, providing the Iranian banking, healthcare, telecommunications, information technology, and shipping sectors with $400 billion in exchange for heavily discounted oil. Nevertheless, Beijing has been careful not to overstep its bounds vis-à-vis the United States concerning Iran, as attempts to evade American sanctions or perceived support for Iranian-aligned proxies could negatively impact its trade relations with the US.


In addition to its growing ties with Iran, China has also significantly increased its economic and security cooperation with the UAE. In fact, it can be argued that the UAE – one of only a handful of states in the Middle East designated as a ‘comprehensive strategic partner’ - is Beijing’s strongest regional ally. Thanks in part to the large Chinese community within its borders and a series of state visits by both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in 2015, 2018 and 2019 respectively, the Emirates have become a hotbed for Chinese business, investment, and trade development.


Critically, Beijing and Abu Dhabi established the UAE-China Joint Investment Fund in 2015, providing $10 billion in support of BRI-related projects within the country, the most notable of which being the expansion of the Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi (KIZAD) and the Jebel Ali Free Zone (JAFZA) by Chinese firms. However, Chinese-Emirati cooperation has also extended into the technology, healthcare, education, defense, and film sectors, emphasising the increasingly close relationship between the two countries. Given the growing level of cooperation between China and the UAE, in addition to Abu Dhabi’s tacit support of Chinese repression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, it can be argued that Beijing intends to use the UAE as a beachhead for its economic and military interests in the Persian Gulf against the backdrop of US retrenchment from the region.