Written by Ben Hubbard and Javier C. Hernández
In his swing through Asia this week, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia vowed to invest billions of dollars in Pakistan and pushed to sell more oil to India. He will also explore deepening economic ties with China.
The trip, by the de facto ruler of a wealthy Arab kingdom that has long considered the United States its most important ally, highlights the extent to which Saudi Arabia is increasingly looking to Asia for political and technological support that it cannot always count on from the West, analysts said.
Saudi Arabia’s need to diversify its alliances has grown more acute amid the Western backlash over the killing of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul in October. Congress has pursued measures to blame Crown Prince Mohammed for the killing and limit military aid to the kingdom, while American tech companies that the crown prince heavily courted for projects in the kingdom have stepped back for fear of damaging their reputations.
But the countries that Crown Prince Mohammed is visiting this week — Pakistan, India and China — have expressed no such concerns, prioritizing economic ties with the kingdom over concerns about its respect for human rights.
In turning east, the Saudis are also sending a message to the West, analysts said.
“The Saudi leadership recognizes that it’s integral to diversify its relationships,” said Mohammed Turki al-Sudairi, a Hong Kong-based researcher for the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. “The message is that there are other options out there.”
Historically, Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Asia was mostly transactional, with the kingdom selling crude oil to power Asian economies while importing manufactured products. Since his father, King Salman, came to the Saudi throne in 2015, Crown Prince Mohammed, 33, has been seeking to deepen the kingdom’s relationships with Asian countries and has made previous visits to the region.
He began this tour on Sunday in Pakistan, a fellow Islamic country that welcomed him like a hero, with a 21-gun salute and fighter jet escort. President Arif Alvi granted him Pakistan’s highest award, and the head of the Senate gave him a gold-plated assault rifle.
Prime Minister Imran Khan had spoken about Pakistan’s dire need for Saudi funds to ward off an economic crisis, and the crown prince delivered, signing tentative agreements for investments of up to $20 billion in mining, agriculture, energy and other sectors and promising to free thousands of Pakistanis in Saudi prisons.
“This is not charity, this is an investment,” said Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs. “There is benefit for both sides.”
How much benefit remains to be seen, as many of the agreements were nonbinding memorandums of understanding that are often not fulfilled.
On Tuesday, Crown Prince Mohammed traveled to India, where he was welcomed with drumming and a bear hug from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India is an important provider of labor for Saudi Arabia, with millions of Indians working in the kingdom.
During the visit, the crown prince was expected to press India to buy more Saudi oil to fuel its fast-growing economy and to take market share away from Iran, the kingdom’s primary rival.
On Wednesday, Crown Prince Mohammed was set to land in China for talks on Thursday and Friday with President Xi Jinping and other officials. China is the largest buyer of Saudi crude oil, and ties between the two countries have been expanding to other sectors like technology and e-commerce.
The relationship has grown because both countries have ambitious development plans that they believe the other can help achieve. Along with seeing Saudi Arabia as a stable source of oil, China hopes that the kingdom can play a role in its Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious plan by Xi to build rail lines, power networks and roads to better connect China to allies in Europe and Africa.
On the Saudi side, Crown Prince Mohammed has begun plans to open up the kingdom and diversify its economy, a project called Vision 2030, and he hopes that Chinese companies will help it succeed.
“China has the experience, funds, technology and talents for the Vision 2030,” said Li Guofu, a researcher on Middle Eastern issues at the China Institute of International Studies, a research organization overseen by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Chinese-Saudi cooperation has already moved into new fields. The two countries agreed in 2017 to open a factory in Saudi Arabia to build Chinese drones. And last year, China launched two observation satellites for Saudi Arabia.
Facilitating Chinese-Saudi ties is a shared outlook that prioritizes economics while each ignores the other’s domestic governance and human rights practices. China has remained quiet about the killing of Khashoggi, while Saudi Arabia has not criticized China’s mass internment of members of its Muslim minority.
That could increase the possibilities for Saudi tech companies.
During a tour of the United States last year, Crown Prince Mohammed visited the headquarters of Google and Apple, and met with the Amazon chief, Jeff Bezos, hoping to get them involved in his development plans. But after Khashoggi’s killing, the talks stopped and a range of U.S. businesses suspended their ties with the kingdom.
Li, the Chinese analyst, said the Saudis were currently “very uncomfortable” in their relationship with the United States and Europe, where many governments have condemned the killing.
“This is also a very important reason that Saudi Arabia is making this kind of strategic adjustment,” he said.
Chinese companies have not balked, looking for new markets as their domestic economy slows. Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications company that U.S. officials have labeled a potential national security threat, opened a store last month in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, its largest outpost in the Middle East.
While Amazon has suspended plans to open an office in the kingdom, Jollychic, a Chinese e-commerce business, has expanded its Riyadh headquarters.
“Chinese tech companies’ positions on security and public safety are differentiators with Middle Eastern governments,” said Sam Blatteis, previously Google’s head of Gulf government relations and now the co-founder of The MENA Catalysts, a consulting firm. “They are in a similar place on the trade-offs on the shifting frontier between privacy and security.”