Why is Saudi Arabia's king spending a month in Asia?

King Salman's trip reflects deepening ties, with Asia taking on growing role in Gulf security

Saudi Arabia's King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud began a month-long trip to Asia last week that has taken him to Malaysia and Indonesia, with stops in Japan, China and the Maldives to follow.

Coming after high-level visits between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Chinese government officials, the King's trip is a further indication of the deepening of relations between Arab Gulf monarchies and East Asia. While trade is an important focus for the Saudi delegation, Asia's growing role in Gulf security is going to be a major feature of the trip.

The China-Saudi security relationship was emphasised during a visit to China by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Salman in August last year, when Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan said: "China is willing to push military relations with Saudi Arabia to a new level."

This took shape two months later, with the 15-day joint military exercise in Chengdu, where Saudi Special Forces and their Chinese counterparts trained together in anti-terrorism drills, hostage situations, extreme weather and relationship building at the non-elite level.

Although this was the first time that Chinese forces cooperated in military exercises with an Arab state, Chinese military officials have been developing deeper relationships with GCC officers in recent years.

The Chinese navy has been using ports in Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for rest and replenishment stops for its ongoing Chinese Naval Escort Taskforce mission in the Gulf of Aden and along Africa's east coast. These stops provide opportunities for Chinese officers to call on their hosts, visit Gulf facilities and participate in cultural and sports exchanges. They also underscore that China views the Gulf as an operational zone of strategic importance.

As the world's largest importer of oil, China considers trade the cornerstone of its relations with the GCC, with bilateral trade increasing from just under US$10 billion in 2000 to US$158 billion (S$223 billion) by 2014. A China-GCC free trade agreement is expected soon, and the commercial side of the relationship will only grow stronger, making Gulf security an ongoing economic imperative for China.

King Salman greeting the crowd during a visit to Jakarta's Istiqlal Mosque with Indonesian President Joko Widodo last Thursday. In his address to Indonesia's Parliament, the monarch called for a united fight against terrorism, with a security pact described as the centrepiece of the 10 agreements signed during his visit. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

This has led to a deeper regional footprint for China, with large expatriate business communities across the Arabian Peninsula - and more than 230 Chinese firms setting up regional headquarters in Dubai's Jebel Ali Free Zone alone. These companies have been involved in many high-profile projects, including the US$1.8 billion railway that the China Railway Construction Corporation built to transport pilgrims performing the haj, and the UAE pipeline from the Habshan oil field to its Indian Ocean coastline in Fujairah, allowing it to bypass the Hormuz Strait in getting oil to the market.

All told, Chinese firms signed an estimated US$30 billion worth of construction and infrastructure projects with GCC states between 2005 and 2014, accounting for 8 per cent of its global total.

China's ambitious Belt and Road initiative will increase its presence in the Gulf, and with more assets and expatriates in the region, the security dynamic will become a bigger part of the regional role, as China will need to ensure that its interests in the Middle East are protected.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi has indicated as much, stating that China will take on a bigger political role in the Middle East, and that it needs to beef up its regional military capabilities to do this.

Saudi leadership has long wanted to see a more politically active China in the Gulf; there always has been an expectation that the relationship would have to move beyond trade for China to be taken more seriously as a strategic partner. And given tensions between the United States and its Gulf allies in recent years, GCC leaders have been engaging other powers to take a larger role in the region, as when a Gulf leader said: "We need a dependable relationship with a major power. If the United States can't be counted on, then we will have to turn elsewhere."

While details of the agenda for King Salman's trip to China have not been announced yet, other stops on the trip indicated security is high on the list of issues to be covered in Beijing.

Security featured heavily in his visit to Malaysia, with agreements for military exchanges, joint exercises and strengthened military cooperation. In Indonesia, he used his address to Parliament to call for a united fight against terrorism, with a security pact described as the centrepiece of the 10 agreements signed during the visit.

His time in Japan is also expected to have a security focus, with discussions on Japanese cooperation in fighting terrorism, as well as a greater Japanese involvement in maintaining safe sea lanes between the Middle East and Asia. Underscoring this new security dynamic to Saudi-Japanese relations is the announcement that Riyadh is considering posting a military attache to its Tokyo embassy.

Taken together, King Salman's trip to Asia will further integrate East Asian states into a Gulf security dynamic that is shifting from a US-dominated order to one that is much more complex, with a wider range of states pursuing a variety of interests.


•The writer teaches political science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2017, with the headline 'Why is Saudi Arabia's king spending a month in Asia?'. Subscribe