Late last month, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) visited Pakistan, India and China. Given the poor state of Saudi-U.S. relations, it is tempting to see this trip as a response to criticism in the United States of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The underlying story of this trip is not about the United States and Saudi Arabia. It is about the ongoing structural shift in geopolitics, as the global economic center of gravity moves east and Asia and the Middle East draw closer together.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is predominantly regional
The kingdom’s leaders are focused on a range of material and ideological challenges in a volatile and competitive Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and relationships with external powers have always been an important means of addressing this. Since the militarization of its Persian Gulf presence in the early 1990s, the United States played this role, ensuring that no other external power is able to establish itself as a major gulf authority and at the same time preventing any regional state from establishing itself as a hegemon. This has generally maintained a status quo that favors the Saudis and their partners.
Despite defense cooperation agreements, large numbers of U.S. troops and continued arms sales, there is a perception in the gulf that the U.S. commitment to the region is softening. This fear of abandonment is typical for any asymmetrical partnership, but a series of U.S. moves in the Middle East — the Iraq War, the abandonment of Egypt’s Mubarak regime in 2011, the rebalance to Asia, and negotiating with Iran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — reinforced their concerns about a divergence of interests with their main security partner.
Recent moves in MENA have done little to assuage them; President Trump’s call for a total U.S. troop pullout in Syria and a massive reduction in the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan plays to the fear of an America in retreat. The proposed Middle East Strategic Alliance has not gained traction in the region, where there are expectation and confidence gaps among would-be alliance partners, but also a very real concern that it is a way for the United States to reduce its MENA footprint.
As U.S. influence wanes, Persian Gulf leaders make quiet overtures to Asia
In this context, MBS’s trip makes sense. It is not meant to get Washington’s attention; it is meant to continue developing a more balanced set of security and economic relationships. All gulf states have been diversifying their extra-regional power relationships in recent years, not with an eye toward replacing the United States but to hedge against an overreliance on one partner. If the United States seems less focused on MENA, Saudi Arabia will have to start investing some of its diplomatic resources in countries that see a stable MENA as important to their own foreign policies, and Asian countries certainly fit the bill.
Another leader’s journey abroad received less notice than MBS’s trip, but Qatar’s emir was not in Abu Dhabi to watch his national soccer team win the 2019 Asia Cup — instead, he was in China, Japan and South Korea. With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, he announced the launch of a strategic dialogue, and talks in Seoul focused on Qatari food security. China and Qatar discussed ways to deepen their strategic partnership signed in 2014. Energy trade was also an important feature; Qatargas recently signed a 22-year deal with China.
The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohamed bin Zayed, also was recently in Seoul, building upon momentum from last year’s state visit to the UAE by President Moon Jae-in. This relationship flies under the radar but has intensified significantly over the past decade after a Korean consortium won the bid to build the UAE’s first nuclear reactor. Security cooperation was folded into the relationship with an elite Korean special forces unit — Al Akh — providing training for its UAE counterparts.
Travel is more than messaging
As for MBS’s trip, there was clearly a domestic political agenda in play as well. It has been less than a year since his U.S. tour, where he met with political, business and entertainment elites, rebranding the kingdom. After the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October, however, it is unlikely that MBS would have been received as warmly in Western capitals. In Pakistan, however, he was welcomed with a 21-gun salute, given a golden machine gun, and driven to a welcoming ceremony by Prime Minister Imran Khan. In New Delhi, he was met at the aircraft by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who enveloped him in a bear hug.
But the trip was about more than messaging. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have long-standing security ties, with a Pakistani force deployed in the kingdom to assist and train Saudi forces, and “to protect the royal family from enemies at home and abroad.” Investments dominated the headlines from this meeting, but MBS met with the Pakistani army chief of staff, and Saudi officials met with Khan before MBS’s arrival to push for stronger cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
Less discussed is Saudi-Indian security cooperation, based on a 2014 defense cooperation agreement. While not as robust as the Saudi security cooperation with Pakistan, the agreement focuses on intelligence exchange and military training and education. Of the three, China is perhaps the least obvious, but has the greatest upside. There have been joint training exercises, missile sales, and last year, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. set up a factory to produce hunter-killer aerial drones in Saudi Arabia.
Taken together, none of these states are capable of — or are likely to have an interest in — replacing the U.S. security role. Asian states have deep economic and energy interests in the Persian Gulf, and this is creating opportunities for cooperation that will no doubt lead to a greater responsibility for protecting these interests and investments.
That Saudi Arabia and its gulf neighbors are increasingly looking toward Asia for a more diversified set of relations is a reflection of this new economic reality. It is also an indication that even the perception of a less engaged United States can result in a more fluid gulf order, with a greater number of states carving out a space to pursue their regional interests.
Jonathan Fulton is an assistant professor of political science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, UAE.