Saudi King Salman Abdulaziz’s tour of Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Japan, China and the Maldives, followed by a stop in Jordan before returning to the Kingdom, is full of thematically importance.
While these Asian states as a whole represent Saudi Arabia’s main trade partners to the East, King Salman is seeking to cement new understanding between these states and Riyadh’s domestic and foreign policy objectives. The core of King Salman’s trip is to sign bilateral agreements in a variety of areas with the understanding that these East Asian states will play an important role in achieving Vision2030.
Given that the United States withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Saudi Arabia sees that as the core Middle East country, Riyadh needs to actively participate in the 21st century pivot towards the Asia and the Pacific Ocean itself. The King’s trip comes on the heels of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s successful visit to China and Japan in September last year.
Asian banks and companies are also expected to play major roles in the Kingdom's plans to develop non-oil industries (ferrous and non-ferrous metals, ores, precious minerals, petrochemicals, copper, gold and silver) and expand its international investments, all part of the crude exporting giant’s attempts to reduce dependence on oil revenues.
In addition, Saudi officials are keen to court Asian investors for the sale of a five percent stake in Aramco in 2018, which is expected to be the world's biggest IPO, and have solicited financial advice from banks in China. Already, Aramco signed an agreement to take a 50 percent stake in select ventures and assets in the Refinery and Petrochemical Integrated Development (RAPID) project developed by Malaysia’s national oil company, Petronas.
The King’s travel is about bringing investment into Saudi Arabia and maintaining business in Asia for Saudi crude exports. The big prize for the Kingdom is China – which has overtaken the US as the world’s biggest importer of oil. Data shows that China sources most of its energy needs from Saudi Arabia.
King Salman’s trip to Asia is not only a shift in Saudi foreign policy by becoming more assertive in bilateral relations across energy and counter-terrorism but also to isolate Iran from its Asian partnersDr. Theodore Karasik
But Russia and Iran are fast gaining ground, and China has been investing in oil fields in both nations. Riyadh is keen to remain the top supplier to Beijing. More importantly, the King’s discussions also include next year’s ARAMCO IPO where the Saudis seek Asian investors to buy a five percent stake. There is also discussion that the IPO may be listed in an Asian market.
Another theme is counter-terrorism. The King’s travel is meant to expand cooperation particularly in information sharing and intelligence. Of particular importance for Saudi Arabia is Indonesia. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation and has been targeted by Islamic extremist terrorists ever since the 2002 Bali bombings by al-Qaeda affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah.
Malaysia is a hub for an assortment of terrorist groups including al-Qaeda but also ISIS. As ISIS is pounded in the Levant, their fighters are already turning resources, fighters and attention toward Southeast Asia’s Muslim-majority countries, as well as the potential for extremists from Southeast Asia to enter the Kingdom as foreign laborers.
A GCC official said “Saudi-Chinese cooperation on counter-terrorism against Uighurs is also part of creating a wide dragnet against transitory terrorists.” A final theme is that King Salman’s travel is also strategic: The Kingdom wants Asian countries to stop doing business with Iran, primarily China. GCC interlocutors are noting that Saudi Foreign Minister’s Adel al-Jubeir’s rare visit to Baghdad where the Saudi message to Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi was “to shift Baghdad away from Iran’s grip.”
Simultaneously, King Salman and his delegation may be delivering the same message to Asian hosts that relations with Iran are going to be under Saudi scrutiny. Iran’s links to East Asia are part of the strategic and tactical competition between Riyadh and Tehran. Although Saudi Arabia is in a strategic relationship with China, Beijing’s support for Iran is not serving Riyadh’s interest now.
King Salman’s trip to Asia is not only a shift in Saudi foreign policy by becoming more assertive in bilateral relations across energy and counter-terrorism but also to isolate Iran from its Asian partners. Thus, Saudi Arabia is seeking Asian support for the Arab charge to swing Asia away from the Islamic Republic. Clearly, ties between Indonesia and Malaysia with Saudi Arabia is an important part of Riyadh’s ability to counter Iranian influence in Southeast Asia.
Overall, King Salman’s historical visit to Asia is occurring at the right time to bring Riyadh closer to Asian partners who see the value of investing and cooperating with Saudi Arabia.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Washington DC-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets @tkarasik.