WSJ report: Why Saudi King leads hundreds of princes, clerics, military officials on Asia trip

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Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud’s month-long visit through Asia, alongside his entourage, is being described as a bid to strengthen ties with a region the kingdom sees as an increasingly valuable economic partner.

According to a newspaper report, the stops in Indonesia and Malaysia reflect the kingdom’s desire to deepen ties with the Muslim-majority countries. The Wall Street Journal report said senior princes, religious leaders, ministers and military officials accompany King Salman during the trip.

During the King’s first stop in Malaysia, he agreed to invest $7 billion in a Malaysian petrochemical project. The group will then travel to Indonesia, Brunei, Japan, China and the Maldives. The tour, according to the report, comes at a delicate time for bilateral relations with Washington, Riyadh’s most important strategic partner.

While the US remains a vital ally, the souring of ties pushed the kingdom to accelerate efforts to become more self-sufficient, broadening and deepening its alliances beyond the West. Saudi Arabia welcomed the election of US President Donald Trump but Trump’s regional policy is still far from clear.

King Salman’s tour of Asia is happening before an expected visit to Washington to meet Mr. Trump. “Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is becoming more active and confident,” said Abdullah al-Shammary, a Saudi analyst and former career diplomat told the newspaper.

“Despite the good mood with the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia is sending a message to Washington that ‘Yes, you are our friend. But we also have alternatives.’”

King Salman inspects an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017. (AP)
King Salman inspects an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017. (AP)

Facilitating pilgrimage

During the Asia visit, officials will discuss business opportunities in sectors like tourism and pilgrimages from those countries to Makkah and Madinah.

Saudi Arabia said it issues as many as 3,200 visas a day just for Malaysians to travel to Saudi Arabia for the year-round Umrah pilgrimage. In Indonesia, the Saudis will visit the Istiqlal Mosque, the biggest one in Southeast Asia, and later pause for a holiday at Bali.

Energy and investment

China and Japan are together with the US the biggest buyers of Saudi oil—each spending more than $20 billion on oil products in 2015. However, according to the report, Saudi Arabia pushes to diversify its economy beyond oil following the slump in crude prices that began 2014, Saudi Arabia is hoping to attract foreign investment.

From China and Japan it hopes to draw interest in sectors including logistics, transportation, construction and financial services, said a person familiar with the agenda. A Japanese government official was quoted as saying that Saudi Arabia’s aim of reducing its dependency on oil will be discussed when King Salman meets with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on his March 12-15 visit.

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