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Thursday, February 21, 2019, 10:46
Saudi diplomacy tastes diplomatic change
By Liu Jianna
Thursday, February 21, 2019, 10:46 By Liu Jianna

Editor's Note: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will visit China on Thursday and Friday as part of his Asia tour, which has taken him to Pakistan and India earlier. Why is the Saudi crown prince visiting China now? And how can China and Saudi Arabia strengthen ties? Four experts share their views on the issue with China Daily's Liu Jianna. Excerpts follow:


Reflecting Riyadh's eastward policy

As early as 2005, former Saudi king Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz proposed the eastward policy, saying that Arab countries' future and hope lie in the East and China. Accordingly, king Abdullah chose China as the destination of his official visit, breaking with the tradition of first visiting the United States.

This shows Riyadh has put increasing emphasis on the East in the 21st century. The crown prince's visit to the three Asian countries not only reflects this trend in Saudi Arabia's diplomacy, but is also closely connected with Asia's strong growth momentum.

Pakistan, also a Sunni country, has been one of Saudi Arabia's closest traditional allies. The two countries have maintained close relations over the past decades irrespective of the changes in global and regional situations. That the Saudi royal family's security personnel and other major security forces are made up of Pakistanis shows the high level of trust Riyadh has in Islamabad.

In addition, Pakistan has been Saudi Arabia's indispensable partner in issues such as the civil war in Yemen and the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition.

India, the largest country in South Asia and bellwether of the Non-Aligned Movement, has increasingly caught Saudi Arabia's eye because of its huge market and growing demand for oil. Also, Riyadh aims to increase its influence on the Afghan government and the Taliban through its cooperation with Pakistan and India.

As for Riyadh's efforts to deepen cooperation with Beijing, there are two reasons for that. First, Saudi Arabia, like other influential regional powers including India, Turkey and Pakistan, actively seeks to strike a balance among major powers and manage relations with the US, China and Russia despite its dependence on the US.

And second, securing China's market amounts to maintaining Saudi Arabia's economic lifeline as China's economic strength builds up and demand for oil grows, especially taking into account the massive scale of bilateral energy trade.

China's Belt and Road Initiative and Saudi Vision 2030, a plan to reduce Saudi Arabia's dependence on oil and diversify its economy, are highly complementary. While Saudi Arabia hopes to diversify its economy, China aims to promote the Belt and Road Initiative in the Middle East, making them excellent cooperation partners. Saudi Arabia also seeks cooperation in trade, investment and capacity, particularly in new energy and infrastructure construction, which the Belt and Road Initiative promotes. Besides, the two countries have great cooperation potential in areas such as aerospace and military industry.

Ma Xiaolin, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University

Attempt to break diplomatic deadlock

Diversifying the economy and diplomacy has developed into a trend for Saudi Arabia in recent years. The Saudi Vision 2030 development plan and Mohammed bin Salman's visit to Asia attest to that. Saudi Arabia has set its eyes on Eastern countries such as China. Yet this does not mean Riyadh has given up on the West.

Riyadh's efforts to diversify its diplomacy reflect the profound changes in the world. In the unipolar world dominated by the US, Saudi Arabia depended solely on the superpower on issues such as security. But the global pattern and power balance have changed considerably in the past few decades, thanks chiefly to the rise of Asian countries such as China and India. A number of countries, including Saudi Arabia, have adjusted their foreign policies accordingly.

Besides, to develop and diversify the economy, it is essential for Riyadh to engage with Beijing, the world's second-largest economy and the biggest importer of Saudi oil. As much as both countries aim to expand their cooperation in multiple areas, for instance, aerospace, new energy and high-tech, energy trade will remain an essential part of bilateral economic engagement in the foreseeable future given China's huge demand for Saudi oil.

Saudi Arabia has always had good relations with India, but now it hopes to lessen the impact of the West's isolation through dealings with India owing to the latter's close relationship with the West.

And the Saudi crown prince visited Pakistan mainly out of political, religious and cultural considerations, rather than economic concerns, in an effort to consolidate its relations with the Islamic world.

Li Weijian, a senior research fellow at the Center for West Asian and African Studies and Institute for Foreign Policy Studies, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies

America First pushes Riyadh and Asia closer

Isolated by the West, Riyadh is trying to show it can still conduct fruitful diplomatic activities. The US' influence in the Middle East has declined in recent years. In fact, Saudi Arabia's dissatisfaction with the US has been brewing since the Barack Obama administration, when Saudi Arabia felt it could not count on the US to safeguard its interests, because the "Arab Spring", in Saudi's eyes, showed the US had failed to protect its allies.

Moreover, US President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw US forces from Syria and his "America First" policy has left many US allies in the Middle East including Saudi Arabia surprised and prompted them to turn to the East to make its diplomacy more independent and economy more diversified.

The key areas for cooperation for China and Saudi Arabia include energy. As the international oil market changes from a seller's to a buyer's market, Riyadh needs to secure China's oil import market.

And that Middle East oil exporters such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been paying greater attention to the development of new energy, that is, solar, nuclear and wind energy, provides more room for cooperation. As do China's abundant capital and strong manufacturing sector.

Huang Minxing, a professor at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, Northwest University

More emphasis on matching needs

Saudi Arabia recently joined the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and became the main investor in Belt and Road Initiative projects in Pakistan, forging closer economic ties between Riyadh, Beijing and Islamabad.

In general, China and Saudi Arabia have great potential for cooperation in production capacity, not merely energy. Riyadh hopes to realize economic transition with Saudi Vision 2030 while Beijing has a lot of advantages in emerging fields. In addition, Beijing and Riyadh can achieve some breakthroughs in politics, diplomacy and security and significantly strengthen cooperation in anti-terrorism and anti-piracy operations and global governance.

In order to connect the Belt and Road Initiative and Saudi Vision 2030, the two countries should first understand each other's real needs. And just like China hopes to win over more oil projects in Saudi Arabia, the Yanbu refinery for example, Riyadh wants to woo Chinese investment in infrastructure construction, housing and tourism development.

Sun Xia, an associate research fellow at the Institute of International Relations, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

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