The Saudi crown prince is courting Asia in a dispute with Washington

The Saudi crown prince is courting Asia in a dispute with Washington


Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince has embarked on a multi-stop tour of Asia to cement the Gulf nation’s ties with its largest energy market and to signal growing independence from Washington amid a bitter dispute over oil supplies.

Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s 37-year-old de facto ruler, departed Monday for the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia.

The official Saudi press agency said the trip would include “a number of Asian countries,” although officials have not yet confirmed details of the itinerary.

A likely stop is South Korea, where local media reports the crown prince will meet business leaders. He is then expected to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, which begins in Bangkok on Friday.

The trip comes as Riyadh is at odds with Washington over oil cartel OPEC+’s October decision to cut production by two million barrels a day.

Amid rising inflation and soaring energy prices, the White House worked hard to prevent oil production cuts.

In July, US President Joe Biden visited Jeddah and rescinded a 2019 promise to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over its human rights abuses, most notably the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.

The US criticized the OPEC+ cuts as tantamount to “alignment with Russia” in the Ukraine war and warned of unspecified “consequences”.

Although both Biden and Prince Mohammed are in Bali for the G20 summit, the White House says the president has no plans for a bilateral meeting.

Despite announcing record profits from oil sales in recent months, Saudi officials have vigorously defended their policies as purely economic.

The standoff has done little to stem speculation about the kingdom turning away from its longtime security and energy partner.

Prince Mohammed’s recent trip makes that shift even more plausible, said Umar Karim, an expert on Saudi politics at the University of Birmingham.

“This is a trip to further promote coordination with energy markets in Asia, but also to demonstrate to the broader Western world, and essentially the United States, that Saudi Arabia is not short of options in terms of partnerships,” he said.

– energy bonds –

The relationship sealed between Saudi Arabia and the US at the end of World War II is often described as an oil-for-security arrangement.

But over the past decade, the main export markets for Saudi crude have been in Asia: China, Japan, South Korea and India.

So long before Prince Mohammed became heir to the throne five years ago, Saudi officials began to place special emphasis on nurturing relations in the region, said Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi foreign policy analyst.

“But I would say Saudi Arabia’s pro-market and pro-business foreign policy has reinforced this now and accelerated this type of travel and this focus on Asia,” he said.

Prince Mohammed’s meetings with Asian leaders are likely to address a range of initiatives to facilitate further exports to the region, including possible refinery and storage projects, said Kaho Yu, Asia energy specialist at risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft.

“It’s not just about buying the oil from Saudi Arabia. Rather, it’s about expanding collaboration along the supply chain,” he said.

Saudi Arabia could also work with Asian countries on crude oil alternatives.

On Monday, energy giant Saudi Aramco and Indonesian state-owned Pertamina announced plans to explore “collaboration in the hydrogen and ammonia sectors.”

The timing of the energy talks with Asian partners is crucial as they come just weeks before the next OPEC+ meeting on December 4, which is likely to bring global energy disputes back into the headlines.

– Nobody’s ‘buddy’ –

Prince Mohammed’s Asia trip also precedes a December trip to Saudi Arabia by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Though no date has been confirmed, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said last month the kingdom was finalizing “preparations” for talks with Xi, which would also involve other Arab countries.

Developing stronger ties with China sends the strongest signal for Riyadh’s efforts to balance its ties with world powers and pursue a “Saudi first” foreign policy.

“They are still very dependent on the US for security, but they show that they are exploring other strategic relationships and perhaps trying to gradually become less dependent on the US,” said Torbjorn Soltvedt of Verisk Maplecroft.

“I think it’s very important that the Saudis show that they don’t take sides on this,” said Karim of Birmingham University.

“The current trend in Saudi foreign policy is that of a player in his own right, not some sort of lackey or henchman of a larger power.”

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