by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz is conducting a six-country tour of Asia that will take him to Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Japan, China, and the Maldives. Aside from its monthlong duration, the trip is significant for the commercial and strategic messages it conveys in the context of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious program of economic reform and efforts to balance global power and geopolitical influence. The visit is consistent with the Saudi “pivot to Asia” in recent years, based around a set of common interests in trade, energy, and counterterrorism. Moreover, at a moment of such international uncertainty, the Saudi leadership will be keen to portray a kingdom that remains attractive to, and open to business with, a wide array of partners in regional and world affairs.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Asian states have come a long way in a comparatively short period as formal diplomatic ties with China, for example, were only established in 1990. Successive Saudi leaders have recognized that the structure and pattern of world trade is changing and have readjusted pragmatically to take advantage of those shifts. Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz notably made China the destination for his first major international visit as monarch in January 2006, visited India later the same year, and in 2010 upgraded the Saudi-Indian relationship into a Strategic Partnership. In 2014, as crown prince, Salman made two lengthy trips to Asia during which he visited Pakistan, China, India, Japan, and the Maldives, and came away with a raft of agreements across the defense, security, energy, and infrastructure sectors.