Biden Speaks to Oman’s Ruler With Concerns Rising Over China’s Presence in Region

(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden spoke with the ruler of Oman, amid US concerns about China’s efforts to deepen its defense presence in the Middle East.

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Biden and Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, the sultan of Oman, “committed to strengthening the longstanding US-Oman bilateral relationship and seeking new opportunities in trade and investment, security coordination, and cooperation towards a more prosperous Middle East region,” the White House said in a readout of the call Friday.

Biden has been briefed on what his advisers see as a Chinese plan to build a military facility in Oman, according to people familiar with the matter, part of a broader effort by Beijing to deepen defense and diplomatic ties in the Mideast.

Biden was told Chinese military officials discussed the matter last month with Omani counterparts, who were said to be amenable to such a deal, said the people, who asked not to be identified to discuss private deliberations. The people said the two sides agreed to more talks in the coming weeks.

The White House readout made no mention of the China concerns.

Earlier: Biden Briefed on Chinese Effort to Put Military Base in Oman

The precise location of the possible military facility or what it would house is not known. One of the people familiar with the matter described the Chinese role as more of a military presence than an actual facility or base.

Biden in recent weeks has held a series of calls with Middle East leaders as he seeks to prevent the conflict between Israel and Hamas — which has been designated a terrorist organization by the US and European Union — from escalating and to escalate the flow of humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza.

The White House said Biden and the sultan of Oman discussed the latest developments in the Israel-Hamas war, including the “importance of sustained humanitarian access and the importance of protecting civilians, consistent with international humanitarian law.”

“They emphasized the importance of deterring threats from any state or non-state actor seeking to expand the conflict and of working towards a durable and sustained peace in the Middle East, to include the establishment of a Palestinian state,” the White House said.

But the call with the sultan is particularly notable considering Chinese interests in the country. The Pentagon has been saying for years that China wants to build more overseas military logistics facilities in the region.

A facility there would amount to a challenge to the US, whose Central Command oversees troops stationed around the region. Oman also sits near the Strait of Hormuz, one of the most vital shipping lanes for oil and liquefied natural gas.

China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Tuesday that cooperation with Oman “has yielded fruitful results.”

“The two sides have a high degree of consensus on further developing bilateral relations and deepening cooperation in various fields, aiming to deepen the bilateral friendship and benefit the two peoples,” it said.

Oman is often referred to as the Switzerland of the Middle East for its policy of neutrality. The country regularly acts as a mediator, including between the US and Iran.

(Updates with no mention of China in readout, in fifth paragraph.)

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