Last year could hardly be described as the best period in bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States, since the interests of these two nations have shifted dramatically over the years. Today, Washington and Riyadh occupy different positions on such important topics as Syria, Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Egypt, the so-called “democratization” of the Middle Eastern region, and oil price dumping proposed by Washington in a bid to undermine Russia’s economy.
One of the major bumps in US-Saudi bilateral relations was the so-called Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act passed by Congress last year. The Saudi response to this act was a harsh one, with Riyadh announcing its plans to sell up to 750 billion dollars worth of treasury securities and other assets in a bid to prevent them from being seized. Under these circumstances Saudi Arabia began to explore the possibility of developing bilateral ties with states that could replace the US in its capacity of its major overseas patron, by initiating active contacts with Russia and a number of EU states.
By finally realizing that the unipolar world era is all but over, Riyadh decided its was time to seek a place in the world where various countries, cultures, and civilizations play their own roles. Additionally, this process has been used to display Riyadh’s displeasure with Trump’s policies of taking a U-turn away from globalism in pursuit of US national interests. Thus, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud decided to embark on a trip to Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Maldives, along with Japan and China. In the official announcement of the trip, its goal was stated as a search for ways of strengthening ties with the major importers of Saudi oil in the East, along with exploring possibilities of mitigating Riyadh’s dependence on oil exports. By commenting on this trip, a columnist of a leading Saudi newspapers would note that there were two components to this trip:
- Salman’s visit to the fellow Muslim countries (Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Republic of Maldives) within the framework of the Riyadh project on social and economic restructuring known as “Vision 2030″, while acquiring their experience in such areas as coexistence of representatives of various religions and ethnic groups and economic development.
- visits to “friendly economic giants” China and Japan in a bid to improve Saudi strategic cooperation with those.
The trip was designed to demonstrate Riyadh’s pivot to the East and ended on March 18, and was, in fact, repeating a geopolitical shift that both Obama’s Washington and Moscow purusued.
As for Salman’s visit to the first four countries, it was a demonstration of Riyadh’s desire to build military and political ties, especially with Muslim majority states Malaysia and Indonesia, making them a part of a so-called “Islamic military alliance” that was first proposed by Saudi Arabia back in 2015. One should not forget that Indonesia is one of the largest suppliers of manpower to Saudi Arabia, with a record number of 1.4 million of its citizens working in Saudi Arabia back in 2010, even though this number has dropped recently. In this regard, one of the pivotal topics of discussion was the question about the future presence of migrants from these countries in the kingdom, especially against the background of Riyadh’s intention of deporting some five million illegal migrants. The total worth of all the agreements that were signed within the framework of the Vision 2030 project, with Malaysia getting 9 billion dollars and Indonesia 4.6 billion dollars, may serve as a sign of the successful first part of the trip of the Saudi monarch.
As for Salman’s visit to Japan, he was the first Saudi king to visit this state in the last five decades. The Saudi delegation was composed of a thousand men who arrived in Tokyo on a total of ten jets. While commenting on this trip, the Japanese press stressed that Saudi Arabia remains the “largest oil supplier” to Japan, with Riyadh covering a third of all of Tokyo’s oil import needs. A major success of King Salman’s visit to Japan was an agreement on the development of a strategic partnership based on the “Joint Saudi-Japanese Vision: 2030“, along with the Saudi intention of backing the Japanese military presence off the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa.
The visit to China was initiated by the fact that the Vision 2030 that King Salman proposed a year ago is bound to fail without Chinese investments. At this juncture it’s clear that nobody else is going to invest money or provide technologies to the Saudi Kingdom. After all, Europe is busy attending to its own problems, just like the United States, while the budget deficit of the kingdom keeps growing, especially against the background of the oil price dumping wars that it was engaged in.
Cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia in recent years has been gaining momentum, which to some extent reflects changes in the strategic priorities of Beijing. Today, China is the second largest importer (18% of total imports) and the first largest exporter (22% of total exports) of the Kingdom. At the same time, China is the most significant importer of Saudi non-oil (petrochemical, agricultural and livestock) products. The volume of Chinese-Saudi trade turnover reached 42.3 billion dollars back in 2016. This, of course, is a significant amount for a relatively small country, but for China it is not that big of a deal.
Nevertheless, King Salman’s visit was also very important for China, since the need to protect maritime communications (as in the case of Japan) forced China to expand its military presence in various regions of the world. The deployment of military patrols in the Arabian and Red Seas (using the possibility of refueling in Jeddah), as well as the establishment of a military base in Djibouti, serves as an additional confirmation of this notion. However, the sphere of Saudi-Chinese cooperation is becoming much broader. According to the Minister of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China, Gao Hucheng, in 2017, a total of a hundred Chinese companies began operating in Saudi Arabia, working such areas as oil and gas exploration, petrochemistry, housing construction, railway and port projects, along with power plant construction. Therefore, the natural result of Salman’s trip to Beijing was the attraction of investments from China, with a total worth of bilateral deals reached nearing 65 billion dollars.
One should also not forget that Saudi Arabia remains a major arms importer, with one of the highest ratios in weapons acquired versus GDP in the world. And if earlier the Saudis were buying mostly American weapons, this market is now increasingly occupied by Chinese arms manufacturers. In particular, in the near future a part of such military cooperation will be the participation of Chinese military equipment manufacturers in the construction of at least one factory for the production of unmanned aircraft in Saudi Arabia.
Jean Périer is an independent researcher and analyst and a renowned expert on the Near and Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”