Saudi Arabia in Asia

Shift toward security?

In early May Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman embarked on a month-long trip to Asia, taking in Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, and China.

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Muhammad bin Salman Al Saud attends the opening ceremony of the G20 Leaders Summit in Hangzhou, China, in September 2016

At each destination the King and his local counterparts issued statements emphasizing a desire for closer security cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Asia. While deep economic relations between the Kingdom and the continent already exist, this is one of the first times Asian countries have indicated an interest in direct involvement in the Middle East’s security affairs.

Some analysts have observed that the monarch’s push toward Asia may be partially due to the election of US President Donald Trump. Given that the US is one of the greatest backers of Saudi Arabia, Trump’s calls for a more isolationist foreign policy at multiple points over the course of his election campaign. and later in the first months of his presidency, represent a new departure for contemporary US foreign policy.

The King’s trip shows that Saudi Arabia is pursuing closer relations with Asia in all areas. His trip was peppered with announcements of large business deals with each of the countries visited, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Both Japan and China have suggested they may wish to play a greater political role in the region as “honest brokers” in regional conflicts.

The two countries are deeply linked to Saudi Arabia economically, with China importing nearly 60% of its oil from Gulf states and Japan importing 83%.

China in particular could become the next significant geopolitical partner for Saudi Arabia. It holds a seat on the United Nations Security Council, and has been expanding its role in many Middle Eastern countries as part of its “One Belt, One Road” strategy. This aims to expand China’s connections with the rest of Asia as it forges an overland trade route with Europe.

However, it is unclear how deeply its government wishes to get involved with Saudi Arabia’s security. While the US has supported Saudi Arabia in several security campaigns including the bombing of Yemen, China has remained relatively distant from taking political stances in the Middle East. In particular, the ongoing conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran appears to be something from which China wishes to remain apart.

In almost all of the joint statements released during the King’s Asian tour, security in Yemen was mentioned as a key security goal, but not in China. Yemen has become in many ways a proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. If China were even to support Saudi Arabia at a political level in Yemen it would still have significant consequences.

The King also stressed security in conversations with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, especially in Syria and Yemen, while Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Japan, Ahmed Bin Younes al-Barrack, stated that Japan and Saudi Arabia shared several security interests in the same areas. In China, both Riyadh and Beijing stated that they hoped the security relationship between China and Saudi Arabia would expand.

“Saudi Arabia is willing to work hard with China to promote global and regional peace, security and prosperity,” King Salman announced, going on to say that he hoped that China would expand its role in the Middle East.

In practical terms this appears to mean that there will be greater cooperation between Chinese and Saudi Arabian security forces when it comes to training and resources. Analysts have speculated that Saudi Arabia may also be looking to procure weapons from China as it seeks to become less reliant on Western backers like the US. The push for greater security cooperation between Saudi Arabia and China seems to be proceeding steadily.

In August, China announced that they were willing to advance security relations with Saudi Arabia. Both countries held a series of joint military exercises between their respective special forces, while in November Saudi Arabia and China announced a five-year plan for security cooperation. The recent trip to China not only covered large economic deals but also some joint statements on the importance of expanding security cooperation between the two countries.

Whether this expanded security role means that China is looking to take a bigger political role in the Middle East at large or whether it is simply hoping to deepen its ties with Saudi Arabia remains unclear.

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