Strategic Shift: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Asia Tour

Posted on Posted inOpinion

LI WEIJIAN — Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud traveled to Asia last week, visiting Pakistan, India and China.

The main purpose of this trip was to step up the country’s diplomatic outreach by boosting relations with these Asian countries.

Riyadh used to rely on the West. However, having realized that Western countries are not always dependable, the Saudi Prince is banking on the “Look East” policy propounded by former King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The policy, however, does not mean Riyadh will cut ties with the West, especially the US; it would rather seek balanced diplomacy. Riyadh is trying to act prudently by not placing all eggs in one basket.

This feature of Saudi Arabian diplomacy is in line with the trend in global politics. The world order is changing. The US is no longer capable of dominating others. The West has to acknowledge a multipolar world as well as China’s rise.

Small and medium-sized countries used to be influenced by the US. They had to depend on Washington for protection. In the wake of an emerging multipolar world, these countries will seek a more balanced diplomacy. Saudi Arabia is one of them.

In addition, Mohammed’s trip to Asia also stems from considerations of Saudi’s economic interests. China and India are important oil customers. As an oil exporting country, Saudi Arabia finds it significant to seek stable markets that can assure payments. Oil is a key revenue earner for the country. China and India are two such markets.

The Crown Prince’s mission is to lead his country to develop sustainably while ensuring its security. Keeping closer ties with Pakistan, India and China is based on these needs. This is the main purpose of Mohammed’s Asian tour.

Riyadh’s interests are not only confined to energy. The global economic development is slowing down, hence the demand for oil is on the decline. The growing use of new energy is also taking a toll on the demand for crude.

Saudi Arabia has been factoring in the reduced demand for oil in its development matrix. Though achieving “Vision 2030” depends on many factors, moving away from an economic development model largely dependent on oil is key to the country’s goals. Saudi Arabia hopes to cooperate with more countries to simultaneously develop many areas.

During the visit, Mohammed signed agreements with Islamabad to invest in an oil refinery in Gwadar where China is engaged in the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China welcomes Saudi’s involvement in the CPEC. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said on February 19, “The CPEC will not only benefit the people of China and Pakistan, but also help the region enhance economic cooperation and connectivity and realize common development. China stands ready to engage in third-party cooperation with Pakistan on the basis of consensus.” Riyadh’s participation in the CPEC can be regarded as a support to the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative.

According to the BBC, on February 18, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the Arab state was to “try to de-escalate tensions between the two countries [India and Pakistan], neighboring countries, and to see if there is a path forward to resolving those differences peacefully.”

Saudi Arabia maintains friendly relations with both countries though it has closer ties with Pakistan than with India. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are Islamic countries and Riyadh considers itself the leader of the Islamic world, hoping to maintain its leadership. However, its influence in the Islamic world is waning as a result of declining economic strength as well as its faulty policies on issues such as Syria and the embargo of Qatar.

In order to shore up its position, Riyadh has to try harder. Since Pakistan supports Saudi Arabia, the latter values ties with the South Asian nation. Islamabad has fallen on hard times as its economy is suffering. Saudi’s offer of helping Pakistan will help Riyadh maintain its leadership in the Muslim world.

The author is a research fellow with the Institute for Foreign Policy Studies of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, and vice president of the Chinese Association of Middle East Studies.

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