What King Salman seeks in Asia

Riyadh’s economic ambitions paired with its historic political goals leave ties with Asia-Pacific states non-optional.

Saudi Arabia''s King Salman poses for a photo with Malaysian King Muhammad V and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in Kuala Lumpur
Saudi Arabia's King Salman poses for a photo with Malaysian King Muhammad V and Prime Minister Najib Razak in Kuala Lumpur on February 26 [Bandar Algaloud/Reuters]

In the final days of February, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, flanked by a 600-strong delegation, embarked on a month-long tour of the Asia-Pacific, where he is visiting Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Japan, China, the Maldives, and, on his way back to the Middle East, Jordan.

Saudi kings seldom undertake such ambitious regional tours, but King Salman’s undertaking is an extension of the kingdom’s more ambitious outreach to the Asia-Pacific since King Abdullah’s death in 2015.

Saudi state media and the royal court have portrayed the trip as primarily concerned with energy and investment matters, but the broader geopolitical context motivating this rare month-long regional tour by the king merits a closer look.

The king’s trip can be bifurcated into two tranches: China and Japan will fulfill one set of priorities while the trips to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Maldives satisfy another.

China and Japan

First, while crude oil prices have somewhat recovered from their nadir in late 2015 and early 2016, Riyadh remains committed to its longer-term plan to reduce its dependence on oil revenues. In this project, the kingdom will need willing partners and investors in the Asia-Pacific region.

The National Transformation Plan (NTP), conceived by Mohammed bin Salman, the young and ambitious deputy crown prince, has set out nearly 350 targets for Saudi governmental bodies that will require solid foreign direct investment.

Indeed, King Salman’s visit should be seen as the culmination of moves that were put in place by the deputy crown prince in mid-to-late 2016, when the NTP was announced, followed immediately by his own visits to Japan and China in particular.

In Japan and China, the deputy crown prince – who is also the defence minister – received assurances from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Xi Jinping that their countries would promote important inbound investment into the kingdom.

Tokyo and Beijing, meanwhile, as large net importers of energy, see a good relationship with the kingdom as fundamentally in their national interest. China overtook the United States as the world’s largest importer of crude in October 2016.

The deputy crown prince alone can accomplish just so much, though. The crown jewel, so to speak, in the National Transformation Plan for Saudi Arabia is the forthcoming initial public offering for state oil giant Saudi Aramco.

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Seeking out investment from Asian heavyweights such as China and Japan in this endeavour merits the king’s attention; no surprise, then, that Salman’s Asian itinerary includes stops in the region’s two largest economies.

With China, Saudi Arabia also sees an increasingly significant geopolitical counterweight to the US, whose foreign policy has grown uncertain since the inauguration of Donald Trump as president.

In particular, amid an intensifying regional struggle against Iran, which took on a new character in early 2016 after Saudi Arabia executed the prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, the kingdom has seen the value of courting influence in China.

As King Salman heads to Asia, it's worth remembering that Riyadh's look eastward is not sudden, but borne of a strategic plan incorporating the priorities of the NTP and Saudi Arabia's broader global agenda.


Beijing’s voice at the United Nations Security Council and the global stage more broadly on matters ranging from the implementation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which the kingdom has strongly criticised, to Tehran’s broader regional moves, leaves it a valuable partner for Saudi Arabia.

Beijing, however, won’t play along willingly with Riyadh’s geopolitical plans for the Middle East. Since the 2016 nosedive in relations between the two regional heavyweights, China has sought to play an even hand, keeping its ties with both states on good footing.

Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and Maldives

The second set of countries included on Salman’s itinerary – Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and Maldives – are compelling geopolitical targets for the kingdom in different ways.

First, all four nations are Sunni Muslim majority, with Islam being the state religion in both Brunei and the Maldives. (Indonesia is constitutionally secular. The Malaysian constitution, on the other hand, leaves it officially secular while acknowledging Islam’s prominent role in society.) All are also members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Viewing Saudi engagement with these countries strictly through the lens of Islam, of course, would oversimplify the extent of Riyadh’s interests, but any time the Saudi King visits a majority-Muslim country, pan-Islamic rhetoric features prominently on the agenda and these four states are no exception.

Moreover, despite widespread perceptions of and speculations on Saudi Arabia as having a role in enabling the spread of global Sunni armed groups over the decades, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the kingdom has been working overtime to cement its position as a counterterror powerhouse in the Muslim world.

Last year, under the deputy crown prince’s lead, Riyadh declared the foundation of a multi-country Islamic Military Alliance, nominally uniting a wide-range of Muslim-majority states against the ISIL. The deputy crown prince, in January 2016, met with the defence ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the deputy defence minister of Brunei to confer on the matter.

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Maldives, as one of the highest per capita contributors of foreign fighters to the ISIL, was included in the alliance. Malaysia supported the alliance, but did not sign up for a military role. Indonesia and Brunei, meanwhile, expressed support for the initiative.

The king will be looking to bolster perceptions of pan-Islamic cooperation against terror in the region, while also advancing the broader bilateral agenda.

With regional economic heavyweights Malaysia and Indonesia in particular, King Salman and his coterie of advisers will also be looking to advance economic cooperation in line with the objectives of the NTP. Jakarta, which sees a Saudi king visit after a 47-year break, expects up to $25bn in inbound investment.

The Saudi king’s visit coincides with concerns that Indonesian Islam is beginning to shed its historic reputation for tolerance and moderation amid months of protests in Jakarta against the city’s incumbent Chinese-Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as “Ahok”.

With the race for the Jakarta governorship under way now, with tensions still hot from the popular outcry against Ahok for perceived blasphemy against Islam, Indonesian Cabinet Secretary Pramono Anung expressed his hope that Saudi Arabia would promote moderate Islam.

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Radicalisation in Indonesia remains limited, but the country’s authorities have grown concerned about the ISIL’s forays into the region after a January 2016 attack in Jakarta. Days before King Salman’s arrival in the country, another ISIL-linked attacker belonging to Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, a local terror group, set off a small bomb in Bandung .

In this context, anti-Wahhabi moderate Sunni Islamic Indonesian groups such as Nahdlatul Ulama have long complained about Saudi-financed efforts in Indonesia to spread Salafi-Wahhabi, thought as a source of the country’s increasingly perceptible rise in hardline Islam.

In Kuala Lumpur, on the first leg of his trip, Malaysian state oil firm Petronas and Saudi Aramco signed a $7bn agreement that will see Saudi investment flow into an oil refinery and petrochemical project.

While the investment ostensibly provides much-needed relief to Petronas, which had been struggling under low oil prices, Saudi investment in Malaysia has drawn public scrutiny since revelations that the kingdom may have been involved in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal, whereby Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is accused of appropriating nearly $1bn from a state development company, claiming that the money was a gift from Saudi Arabia.

Looking eastwards

As King Salman heads to Asia, it’s worth remembering that Riyadh’s look eastward is not sudden, but borne of a strategic plan incorporating the priorities of the NTP and Saudi Arabia’s broader global agenda.

Saudi Arabia, like so many states in the region, is betting on the centre of gravity in global affairs shifting away from the West and towards the East in the coming years.

Riyadh’s dramatic plans to overhaul its economic model, paired with its historic bid to maintain its position as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, leave pursuing ties with Asia-Pacific states non-optional.

Ankit Panda is a global affairs analyst and senior editor at The Diplomat, where he writes on security, politics, and economics in the Asia-Pacific region. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.