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Saudi Arabia and its Eastward Shift

By Richard Clifford

15 March, 2019

Widely derided in the west for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and for allegations of human rights abuses in Yemen, Mohammed Bin Salman’s focus recently shifted eastward. Two weeks ago, the Crown Prince concluded his whistle stop tour of India, Pakistan and China, arriving at each with memoranda for large investments, pledges for greater cooperation and a clear desire to avoid controversy or issues of contention. For Saudi Arabia, Asia and its growing markets were always going to be an essential component of its grand Vision 2030 plan, aiming to transform Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy into one better suited to the economic realities of the 21st century. But given the Crown Princes status as a pariah in the west, this visit felt more significant. This is exactly what Riyadh was hoping for. As previously seen with his enthusiastic greeting with Vladimir Putin in Buenos Aries at the G20 summit, MBS aims to brazenly rehabilitate his own image on the international stage and more importantly, demonstrate Saudi Arabia’s intention to create a strategic counterweight to its ties with western partners.

For Saudi Arabia, diversifying its relationships has been a long-term aim and as such, the ground is already largely set for an eastward pivot. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for example, regard one another as indispensable allies. Both are overwhelmingly Sunni states and Pakistani leaders and citizens respect the Saudi King as the custodian of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam. Economically, Pakistan is heavily reliant on Saudi Arabia as a trading partner and as its key provider of oil. China, meanwhile, is already Saudi Arabia’s top export destination with $42 billion in bilateral trade in 2017.

Bolstering these economic ties in Asia was a key aim of the recent visit. Over the course of the week a slew of deals and Memorandum’s of Understanding (MOU’s) were signed, promising billions of dollars in investment. In India, MBS claimed that he saw investment opportunities worth $100 billion in various sectors, signing MOU’s on areas such as tourism, cultural exchanges, and in a pointed reference to Iran and the sanctions regime it’s petrochemical sector faces, promised to ensure that Saudi Arabia would help India meet any shortfall in supply. In China, Asia’s emerging superpower, the Crown Prince held talks with President Xi Jinping signing a $10bn deal to develop a refining and petrochemical complex in northeastern Liaoning province, and in Pakistan, MBS signed deals including a $10 billion agreement on establishing an oil refinery in the southwestern coastal city of Gwadar and a $4 billion agreement on developing alternative energy sources.

Despite the obdurate reluctance of US and UK Governments to criticise Saudi Arabia, in the west, scrutiny of the kingdom’s actions is greater than at any point since 9/11. In February this year, appalled at the civilian suffering in Yemen caused by the Saudi bombing campaign, the US House of Representatives approved a resolution that would force the Trump administration to withdraw US troops and support from the Saudi campaign in Yemen. With the front runner for the Democratic Party’s nomination, Bernie Sanders, leading calls in the Senate to end US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and with other nominees likely to adopt a similar position, this will accelerate Riyadh’s desire to hedge its bets. Strategically for Saudi Arabia there is merit in pursuing allies whose populations and political parties are less inclined to be critical. In China and Pakistan particularly, it is unlikely that MBS will be properly scrutinised for his foreign policy actions. India, a staunch defender of human rights historically, could have been a different story. However, at Government level at least, the reception that MBS received suggests that India’s concern is not primarily on Khashoggi or Yemen.

Saudi Arabia is one of the largest arms importers in the world with an increasing appetite for weaponry. Its defence budget has increased from $27.1 billion (2010) to $56 billion (2018), with most of their imports coming from western sources. With public and political pressure growing in its main arms supplier, Saudi Arabia is now looking to upgrade its own capacity to build weapons and to diversify its supply chains. In 2017 Saudi Arabia signed a $3bn arms deal with Russia, and Asian markets will be eager for similar investments. China has looked to position itself as a potential ‘Plan B’ for Middle Eastern states looking for weapons and has already made some inroads into the Saudi market through selling armed drones. However, it currently lacks the capacity to fill any serious gap left by the Saudis’ western partners. In any case, given the huge amounts of money invested in western technologies, it would be difficult to replace these with weapons from a new supplier. To do so would require a huge restructuring effort of the armed forces and would cause huge logistical issues. This means that any attempt from Saudi Arabia to move its arms supply away from the west voluntarily will be difficult. So long as the west are willing to sell arms to Saudi Arabia there is likely to be a market there.

One area that eastern markets may offer greater potential for Saudi Arabia is if it chooses to develop a civilian nuclear programme. While there is no guarantee that Saudi Arabia is going to take steps in this direction, MBS has previously pledged to keep pace with Iran if its rival turns back to nuclear enrichment. For Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and China would likely hold the path of least resistance to such a programme given the safeguards that the US has on providing technologies to other states. The United States, the Atomic Energy Act (1954), stipulates that a US president must obtain congressional approval of nuclear trade agreements, and prohibits recipient countries from using purchased nuclear technology to develop weapons programmes. The Chinese or Pakistani’s are much less likely than other potential partners to insist that Saudi Arabia do not enrich uranium or possess plutonium.

As with most of Saudi foreign policy, the issue of Iran is never far from the surface. The key strategic concern for Saudi foreign policy is containing what it sees as an increasing Iranian influence across the Middle East. The two states find themselves fighting by proxy in Syria and Yemen, and Tehran’s influence spreads to the capitals of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. This worries the Saudis, who increasingly feel encircled in a region within which they see themselves as the natural leader. One of the key projects in Pakistan that MBS pledged to support was the port of Gwadar in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. This province borders Iran and has been a site for a rise of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia in recent times. It is also close to Iran’s own Deepwater Port of Chabahar. Establishing a strategic foothold here would not only enable Saudi Arabia to challenge the regional pre-eminence of Iran’s port, but would establish a foothold near Iran’s southern border. Alleged Saudi support for Baloch insurgents would also be more readily facilitated with this base, perhaps trying to replicate the success that Iran has had in materially supporting the Houthis on its own borders.

Playing politics on the global stage will also be seen by the Saudi’s as a way of recuperating the Crown Princes battered political capital. The warm reception that MBS received in each country is a stark contrast from his awkward meeting with UK Prime Minister, Theresa May in a small back room at December’s G20. When he visited India, MBS arrived as the first foreign leader to arrive following the suicide attack by terrorist organisation Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which killed 40 Indian security personnel. The timing of his visit was fortuitous as it provided an opportunity for Saudi Arabia and India to agree to comprehensive security dialogue at the level of national security advisors and to set up a joint working group on counter terrorism. With India-Pakistan relations clearly very tense and escalating to concentrated military action, cultivating close relations with both sides could enable Saudi Arabia to act as a bridge between these two countries. The opportunity to act as an interlocker in the India-Pakistan relationship would be a serious boon for Saudi global standing and its influence.

So what does the pivot mean for Saudi partners in the West? The narrative around this visit was a shot across the bow of Saudi Arabia’s western partners. Push too much on war crimes or on human rights and the Saudi’s will look elsewhere. It is noteworthy that this seems to have been successful. The same week that Bin Salman was touring Asia, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt sent a letter to his German counterpart lobbying for an end to Germany’s arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. This bizarre move happened just days after a House of Lords Committee Report concluded that the UK was on the wrong side of international law with its support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen. There remain key ties between Saudi Arabia and the West and a mutual enthusiasm from Governments to preserve them. Despite all the foibles of the Crown Prince, in London and Washington, Governments currently still view Saudi Arabia as a strategic ally in a region where they have few friends. But as political opinion in the west shifts and with open arms, more forgiving audiences and new markets to the east, Saudi attention will continue to drift.

Image source: Qrmoo3

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