The Middle East is stuck in the crosshairs of a worsening US-China rivalry

Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, second from right, walks with Chinese President Xi Jinping as they arrive for a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Monday, July 22, 2019.

(CNN)In a year that has brought profound change to much of the world, the conflict-ravaged Middle East appeared to be finally turning a page. A diplomatic spree that sought to patch up long rifts bore fruit. Iraq transformed from the region's epicenter of violence to one of progress, for example, brokering rare talks between old rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Emerging from the crushing blows of the pandemic and four years of global turbulence during the presidency of Donald Trump, many of the Middle East's nations have shown signs that this level of conflict simply cannot go on.
But as the year grinds to an end, and as a whirlwind of diplomacy picks up speed, another geopolitical fault-line has appeared -- the Middle East has become a political and economic battleground for the US and China, despite its continuous attempts to keep out of this powerhouse rivalry.
    In comments that show just how anxious this is making the Middle East's leaders, a high-level Emirati official earlier this month expressed a sense of hopelessness over the showdown between the US and China.
      "What we are worried about is this fine line between acute competition, and a new Cold War," Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE leadership, said in remarks to the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington last week.
        "Because I think we, as a small state, will be affected negatively by this, but will not have the ability in any way to affect this competition, even positively really."
        Gargash confirmed reports that the UAE -- a key regional US ally -- had shuttered a Chinese facility over US allegations that the site was being used as a military base. He made clear that Abu Dhabi was merely paying lip service to US intelligence -- the UAE didn't actually agree with Washington's characterization of the site. Abu Dhabi simply did not want to upset a strategic ally.
          When asked about the facility, a spokesperson from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they were "not aware" of the details put forward by CNN, adding that China was "firmly opposed to the 'bullying' practices of the US that put unwarranted pressure and interfered in China's cooperation with the UAE."
          "China and the UAE carry out normal cooperation within the scope of sovereignty, which is reasonable and lawful and does not target or have anything to do with any third party," the statement said.
          Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman poses for camera with the Chinese Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Li Huaxin during a visit to Great Wall of China in Beijing, China February 21, 2019.
          But the US won't always win the battle for influence in the country. Days after Gargash's remarks, Abu Dhabi apparently decided to stop humoring America. It was suspending a multi-billion dollar purchase of US-made F-35 aircraft, the first deal of its kind with an Arab country. The US had made the sale conditional on the UAE dropping China's Huawei Technologies Co. from its telecommunications network. Washington claimed the technology posed a security risk for its weapons systems, especially for an aircraft the US dubs its "crown jewel."
          Abu Dhabi disagrees. An Emirati official said a "cost/benefit analysis" was behind their decision to stick with Huawei at the expense of the F-35s. And while US officials have tried to downplay the significance of the event and insists that the sale has not been killed, Abu Dhabi had set a new tone Abu Dhabi does not intend to always bow to US demands over China, and it is dismissing Washington's notions about Chinese trade deals disguised as covert military activity.