Editor's note: This article is adapted from a paper presented at a recent webinar examining Middle Eastern autocrats' complicity with China's repression of its Muslim communities, cohosted by DAWN and the Uyghur Human Rights Project.
In early January, a delegation of 30 Islamic scholars from 14 Muslim-majority countries—including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Tunisia—traveled to China's Xinjiang province, on a trip arranged by the World Muslim Communities Council, an organization founded in the UAE. The council's chairman, Emirati academic Ali Rashid al-Nuaimi, "hailed the efforts of the Chinese authorities in combating terrorism in Xinjiang and praised the interest and determination of the Chinese leadership to serve all people in the region," according to a summary of the visit released by the council.
The talking points could have been written in Beijing, as they directly mimicked the Chinese government's rhetoric about its mass detention of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, many of them ethnic Uyghurs. China has detained over a million Muslims in Xinjiang in recent years, holding them in internment camps where they face torture and are forced to renounce Islam and pledge their loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. China has also adopted draconian measures to slash birthrates among Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China via forced IUDs, abortions and sterilizations. These human rights abuses, condemned as crimes against humanity, have been carried out under the guise of "fighting terrorism," with the Communist Party describing Muslims in China as "infected by an ideological illness," and proclaiming that "if we do not eradicate religious extremism at its roots, the violent terrorist incidents will grow and spread all over like an incurable malignant tumor."
It was little surprise, then, that Uyghur activists described the January visit to Xinjiang by Islamic scholars as "propaganda."
Many authoritarian governments in the Middle East, along with pliant religious scholars and establishments, have emerged as key partners in Beijing's efforts to "Sinicize" Islam within China.
- Jon Hoffman
Such visits and declarations of support for China's repression of Muslim minorities have become all-too common from Muslim-majority countries, particularly in the Middle East, including those that claim to be defenders of Islam. Many authoritarian governments in the region, along with pliant religious scholars and establishments, have emerged as key partners in Beijing's efforts to "Sinicize" Islam within China—that is, to forcibly assimilate Muslim minorities into China's dominant Han culture, according to the dictates of the Communist Party. This support for the Chinese government's policy of erasing distinct ethnic and cultural identities tied to Islam in China has taken many forms beyond friendly statements like those from the delegation of Muslim scholars in Xinjiang. Middle Eastern governments also engage in various bilateral initiatives with Beijing, such as cooperation between Saudi Arabia and China regarding Muslims traveling to Mecca and Medina for the Hajj. In some cases, these governments coordinate directly with Chinese authorities to arrest, detain and deport Uyghurs and other Muslims minorities who have managed to escape China.
With so much international attention on China's expanding diplomatic, economic and even military influence in the Middle East, in a new era of multipolarity, the dramatic increase in religious engagement between regional autocrats and China has gone under the radar. Aside from solely buttressing ties between these regimes and Beijing, this growing religious engagement advances the interests of countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and others, which have increasingly sought to establish a monopoly on the practice and interpretation of Islam, particularly following the Arab uprisings.
Growing ties with China are not solely because of economic and geopolitical interests, but must also be situated within the broader religio-political context that has emerged in the Middle East since the Arab uprisings. Over the past decade, counterrevolutionary and resurgent authoritarian regimes in the region have sought to dominate religious discourse, through the construction and promotion of a state-controlled interpretation of Islam, designed to discredit those who oppose their authority or the broader status quo. It is part of an attempt to prevent another wave of mass mobilization like the 2011 uprisings that represented an existential threat to these regimes.
Even as radical Islamist groups seized on the eruption of civil war and subsequent state disintegration in Syria and Libya, Gulf regimes like Saudi Arabia and the UAE were more concerned with the empowerment of popular Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in post-Mubarak Egypt. Political Islam threatened their legitimacy, especially for Saudi Arabia, whose government claims to be the guardian and custodian of Islam. Mainstream Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood decried these regimes for their abuses and corruption—for preventing democracy, denying their people basic human rights, and constructing economic systems built upon systemic inequality and cronyism—and often couched the critiques in their own Islamic discourse. Their rise set off an intense battle for religious authority and, with it, political legitimacy throughout the region.
In the face of such threats to their power, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other authoritarian regimes—including Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, following his coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi—have sought to utilize domestic Islamic institutions to construct theological arguments that affirm the ultimate authority of the state. This campaign is designed to discredit the Arab uprisings, all alternative forms of political Islamism, and political dissent writ-large. As sociologist Muhammad Amasha argues, such efforts are focused on "delegitimizing political activism, promoting obedience to the rulers, advocating the Islamic legitimacy of the modern state, and prioritizing peace over justice."
Such efforts to impose state-controlled religion overlap with China's own oppressive campaign to "Sinicize" Islam within China. It is within this context that these Middle Eastern autocrats have emerged as allies of Beijing in their shared project to bring religion under the strict authority of the state. For China, this means rendering religion subservient to the Communist Party, along with the distinct ethnic and cultural identities of Muslim minorities groups in China. The Chinese government views the very "Muslimness" of the country's Muslim minority as a security threat to its internal cohesion that needs to be contained. Chinese authorities also fears the exportation of political Islamism from the Middle East and transnational linkages of solidarity between Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and other Islamic communities outside China.
Beijing has worked hard to keep Muslim-majority countries, especially those in the Middle East, silent regarding its ongoing abuses in Xinjiang. Regional autocrats, heavily dependent on Chinese trade, investment and oil markets, have been happy to go along—not only quietly, but openly praising and even cooperating with China's repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
As China continues to expand its ties in the Middle East, while simultaneously ramping up its repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities within China, regional autocrats will remain complicit.
- Jon Hoffman
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, in particular, have gone to great lengths to reproduce the narratives coming out of Beijing. In 2019, 37 states, including those three, signed a letter to the president of the United Nations Human Rights Council praising China's "contribution to the international human rights cause" and claiming that China has restored "peace and security" after facing "terrorism, separatism, and extremism in Xinjiang." Later, in October 2022, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted down a Western-led motion to hold a debate about the human rights abuses taking place in Xinjiang, after countries such as Qatar, Indonesia, Sudan, Pakistan and the UAE rejected the motion.
Political leaders in these countries have also often directly expressed their support for Beijing's repressive policies. When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited China in 2019, he justified Beijing's mass detention of Uyghurs, stating that "China has the right to take anti-terrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security." Such statements are, of course, welcomed by China. Last year, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin touted the support from ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council for China's "legitimate positions on issues related to Taiwan, Xinjiang, and human rights."
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt have all also directly aided China's repression of Uyghurs, by arresting and deporting Uyghur exiles in their own countries back to China at the request of Beijing. Chinese intelligence and security officers regularly operate alongside their regional counterparts on the ground in these Arab countries. The UAE actually hosts a secret, Chinese-run detention facility in Dubai used to target, detain and deport Uyghurs. These black sites within the UAE are run and operated by Chinese authorities, according to numerous testimonies from Uyghur exiles who say they have been detained and interrogated at these facilities.
Increased cooperation with China's Uyghur repression from Middle Eastern autocrats is therefore not only a way to strengthen their overall relationships with Beijing, but to also further their own efforts to wield religion as a tool of soft power and promote a politically quietist and statist version of Islam that cannot threaten their own authority or legitimacy. As China continues to expand its ties in the Middle East, while simultaneously ramping up its repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities within China, regional autocrats will remain complicit.