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ANALYSIS ASIA/PACIFIC MIDDLE EAST

Saudi Prince Proves He Still Has Friends in Asia, Signs Mega Deals with China, India and Pakistan

Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman ended his Asia tour with a stop in China and President Xi. (Photos via public domain)
Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman ended his Asia tour with a stop in China and President Xi. (Photos via public domain)

Saudi prince Mohammad bin Salman inked multiple billion dollar deals on his Asia tour with India, Pakistan and China.

While the West may still be somewhat wary of its relationship with Saudi Arabia and Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the recent warm reception MBS received on a just-ended Asia tour suggests the East may have already forgotten Jamal Khashoggi.

The crown prince’s eastern tour is also likely at least in part a public relations move to salvage his public image and prove to the West that he is still in good graces internationally.

MBS and Saudi Cash Received Warmly on Asia Tour

Last Friday at the end of the MBS’ Asia tour, the young prince and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed on a deal for the Saudi oil company Aramco and the Chinese defense titan Norinco to build a refinery and a petrochemical complex in China to produce 300,000 barrels per day and 1.5 tons of ethylene per year. The project is estimated to be worth more than $10 billion and has a goal of beginning refinery operations in 2024.

As Reuters reported, the prince talked about the Saudi-China bilateral ties that have existed for a long time. MBS expressed his delight over the joint venture with the world’s second-largest economy. “In the hundreds, even thousands, of years, the interactions between the sides have been friendly. Over such a long period of exchanges with China, we have never experienced any problems with China,” MBS said.

President Xi expressed his desire to MBS for Saudi Arabia and China to continue to boost ties to “prevent the infiltration and spread of extremist thinking,” as Chinese state TV reported.

Xi also stressed China’s special relationship with Saudi Arabia and called the country a “good friend.”

MBS Looks Eastward

The influential prince first began his Asia tour in Pakistan Feb. 17 where he cemented an investment agreement worth $20 billion just a few hours after his arrival. Pakistan was the first country the prince visited, saying Saudi Arabia believes, “Pakistan is going to be a very important country in the coming future, and we want to be part of that.”

The crown prince continued his trip to Pakistan’s neighbor and rival, India. There, Saudi Arabia and India inked five agreements on tourism, investment, infrastructure, broadcasting and housing. Both also signed a deal to form a “strategic partnership council.” Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth largest trading partner as well as India’s primary energy supplier. The kingdom supplies 20 percent of India’s crude oil.

MBS’ visits to Pakistan and India were held amid tensions involving both neighboring countries following a suicide bomb incident in the disputed Kashmir region that killed around 42 Indian paramilitary personnel. Kashmir is a predominantly Muslim area located in the Himalaya region and part of a land dispute between India and Pakistan.

Both countries were involved in three wars to control the area (1948, 1965, 1971) – and a conflict that has killed thousands of people since 1989, as several rights organizations claim. During his trip to India MBS expressed his willingness to mediate negotiations between India and Pakistan, saying that both countries share the same problem: terrorism.

According to Karen Young, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, Asia is a potential destination for Saudi investment since that country believes the future of the global economy will be in Asia.

MBS was scheduled to also visit Indonesia and Malaysia, but he postponed his visits without specifying the reasons, as several reports confirmed.

What Wasn’t Discussed on Asia Tour

Perhaps just as significant as the deals signed on the prince’s Asia tour, was what wasn’t discussed. Just months ago MBS’ and Saudi Arabia were in damage control mode as news broke of the murder of Saudi columnist and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey.

Although Saudi Arabia at first denied the murder took place they later admitted Khashoggi was in fact killed and killed inside the Saudi consulate. However, they blamed the murder on ‘rogue actors’ and the royal family and MBS, in particular, did not order or sanction the killing.

While some, including President Trump, were quick to accept the Saudi version of a rogue civilian murder many continued to doubt the Saudi storyline. A New York times report would further damage MBS’ image when they reported that a year prior to Khashoggi’s murder MBS had threatened to put a bullet in the journalist’s head if he did not stop his reporting on Saudi Arabia.

Now four months later, while U.S. politicians and others in the West are still calling for some means to hold Saudi Arabia accountable, MBS embarks on his Asian tour.

In China, MBS found himself agreeable to China’s willingness to skirt over human rights issues. Despite alarming humanitarian reports of China’s repressive policies towards Uighur Muslims, MBS did not approach the issue and instead said Riyadh has no right to intervene in Beijing’s domestic problems. The prince added Saudi Arabia supported and respected China’s rights to protect its security.

Discrimination against the Uighur ethnic minority has been a worldwide concern for years. It started when China began restricting birthrates in the province of Xinjiang and then slowly adopted more harsh policies directed at Uighur Muslims which Beijing has claimed are anti-terrorism policies. Recent reports, including from the U.N., have claimed that China is holding millions of Uighur Muslims in concentration like work camps.

It was what wasn’t said – the Khashoggi killing, Uighur detentions, India/Pakistan tensions – that allowed business to go on smoothly.

MBS Creates Golden Opportunity

Political experts say MBS’ Asia tour is a golden opportunity to prove to the West that Saudi Arabia still has major international allies. A researcher at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, James M. Dorsey, told Agence France-Presse that MBS likely wanted to prove he is not an international pariah.

It is a matter of proving that he still has “international access and he can function… as the most senior representative of Saudi Arabia beyond the king,” Dorsey said.

Another analyst, Li Guofu, director of Middle East studies at the China Institute of International Studies, a government-affiliated think tank, told Agence France-Presse that Asian countries “have an important special characteristic — that is, we don’t interfere in the internal affairs of other countries”.

MBS’ Asia tour is also seen as part of Saudi Arabi’s plan to diversify their economy and be less reliant on oil. To do this MBS had previously announced his Vision 2030 plan which aims to boost the private sector, slash the unemployment rate, and making Saudi Arabia a hub for industrial, tourism and entertainment industries.

“[The] visit to Asia holds geo-strategic and socioeconomic importance, both aspects being very important for the success of the Saudi Vision 2030 with reference to the timings of these visits,” Euromonitor International senior analyst Rabia Yasmeen told CNN.

The Asia tour is Saudi Arabia’s attempt to get back on track after the “hiccup” of the Jamal Khashoggi murder and while the West may not yet be ready to welcome Saudi Arabia back onto its soil, there’s no sign Saudi Arabia is ready to refuse a visit from the West. White House advisor and son-in-law to President Trump, Jared Kushner, has embarked on a five-day Middle East tour which could include a stop and face to face with MBS.

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Yasmeen Rasidi

Yasmeen is a writer and political science graduate of the National University, Jakarta. She covers a variety of topics for Citizen Truth including the Asia and Pacific region, international conflicts and press freedom issues. Yasmeen had worked for Xinhua Indonesia and GeoStrategist previously. She writes from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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