Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) waves while posing for media with Indian President Ram Nath Kovind (C) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during ceremonial reception at Presidential palace in New Delhi on February 20, 2019. PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia may be courting Asian partners, but it will always need the US

Updated 10:47 AM ET, Fri March 22, 2019

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Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she focuses on the Gulf. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.

Perspectives varsha koduvayur

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently wrapped up a week of high-profile visits to Asia, touring Pakistan, India and China in a bid to court new allies. The Saudis clearly mean to signal to the United States and the West that they have options, as the kingdom endures a tarnished reputation over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But anticipation of a full-blown Saudi pivot to Asia — and a turning away from the United States — is misguided. Cooperation between the kingdom and Asia is growing, but at best, relations with Asian countries can only complement US ties.
Mohammed bin Salman's Asia tour, coming two years after his father's historic month-long voyage through the region, saw the Saudis committing billions in investments at each stop. In Pakistan, Mohammed bin Salman signed agreements worth $20 billion, including a $10 billion deal for an oil refinery. In India, he identified $100 billion of opportunities, while agreements inked in China included a $10 billion refinery and petrochemicals deal.
The young royal's outreach to Asia makes strategic sense. In addition to shoring up allies, there are several factors attracting the Saudis to Asia.
Politically, Asian states — with their own patchy domestic records — are less likely to push Saudi Arabia on sensitive issues that are perennial points of contention between Riyadh and western capitals, such as human rights abuses or support for radical Islamists. For instance, even though Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed was outlawed in 2002, Pakistan has been criticized for not doing more to stop terrorist groups. China, meanwhile, has forcibly detained at least 800,000 members of Muslim minorities in "re-education camps" rife with allegations of torture.
Economically, Asian countries guzzle most of Saudi Arabia's oil. Of the kingdom's top five buyers, four are Asian countries, Middle East Economic Survey data shows, and China is on track to increase its Saudi imports this year. Asian markets and investments from the region are a crucial component of Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia's economic reform initiative. Asia is a major target of Saudi Arabia's diversification plans: State-owned Aramco is building a massive $44 billion refinery and petrochemicals complex in India, on top of the Pakistan and China refinery deals announced during the crown prince's tour.
Despite the kingdom's outreach, a full-fledged pivot to Asia is hardly imminent. For one thing, Asian countries' commitments to the kingdom likely fall far short of what Saudi Arabia would like. Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been rivals, and Saudi Arabia would be hard-pressed to convince Asian states to take its side. Risk-averse Asian countries would likely have little appetite for entering the Middle East muddle and would much prefer continuing to do business with both countries. The United States, on the other hand, has a decades-long alignment with Saudi Arabia against Iran.
    Even if Asian countries had the intent, they do not possess the capacity to replace the United States, particularly regarding military prowess. Saudi Arabia is certainly interested in Chinese military equipment, having purchased drones from Beijing and announcing its intent to build a domestic drone industry with Chinese help. But Washington is still the kingdom's top weapons supplier, comprising 68% of Saudi arms imports between 2014 and 2018. Moreover, Saudi Arabia will find it tough to integrate Chinese equipment with its American arsenal — it would run into major logistics and operations-related issues trying to integrate Chinese-made weapons into its American-based systems, particularly given its decades of usage and stockpiling of US systems.