Saudi Arabia’s new regional power play

Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman has enhanced his country’s profile, and redefined Saudi decision-making regarding foreign policy. He is not afraid to undermine, and test existing alliance structures. Where once Saudi monarchs were tempered through consensus, Mohammed bin Salman new narrative of his vision of Saudi Arabia confers decision making through near absolute authority.

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By Christian Kurzydlowski

Saudi Arabia’s soft attempt of a recalibration of its regional interests could not have come at a more fortuitous time, turning a regional tragedy to its advantage. Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (often referred to by the acronym ‘MBS’) Asian tour, consisting of visits to Pakistan, India, and China, just preceded the February 14th 2019 suicide bombing in Kashmir. This attack, which took place in the Pulwama district of Jammu and Kashmir, resulted in the deaths of forty-four police officers. The ensuing fallout and consequences, at the moment involving only India and Pakistan, has the potential to increasingly draw in China, which administers a part of the disputed border region.

This coincidence of timing has offered a prime opportunity for the advancement of Saudi Arabia’s regional interests. This involves trade and economic benefit as a key factor, in conjunction with isolating Iran. MBS’s Asian tour was in itself an attempt to not only to recalibrate regional geopolitics, boost Saudi commercial ties, but also a chance to re-engage as a world leader. This can be seen as part of a larger initiative of MBS’s, the Saudi Vision 2030 [1].  Saudi Arabia, like China, no longer views political, and increasingly economic rejection of the West as costly. At least not as it was.

In the entirety of the tour, Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi’s death was not brought up once. It comes as no surprise that all the countries involved in MBS’s tour are open to Saudi investment given the Kingdom’s financial resources. But what is becoming evident is that in the case of both China and Saudi Arabia, there are increasingly more viable alternatives than the West. Saudi Arabia is looking for markets to offload its oil, while diversifying its economy. China, in the midst of a trade war with the United States, India, and Pakistan, act as perfect conduits for both Saudi political and economic interests.

On a superficial level, regional interests would seem to act as a barrier to Saudi interests. Among them are Chinese and Indian courting of Iran, plus the worrisome escalation between India and Pakistan over the Pulwama attack. China’s issues with its Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang can have consequences on Saudi public opinion. Chinese interests, however, as dictated by the Belt and Road Initiative, sees Saudi Arabia, and “Arab states” more broadly as key partners in advancing this aim [3]. For the Saudi’s, China is a major importer of crude oil, amounting to $20.5 billion. By 2016, China was Saudi Arabia’s main destination for exports. Despite the al-Saud dynasty’s claim to be the “Custodian of the Two Mosques”, and protector of Muslims worldwide, MBS supported China’s right to take “counter-terrorism measures”.

Saudi largesse, itself indicative of Saudi efforts to diversify the economy beyond oil through investment, saw the country sign $18.5 billion worth of agreements with Pakistan. This agreement included five agreements, projects in oil, refining, renewable energy, petrochemicals, and mining. More specifically, the agreements include plans to construct an oil refinery and petrochemical complex in the port city of Gwador, the possibility of two liquefied natural gas powered power plants by Saudi companies, and up to $4 billion in alternative energy and mining deals.

Saudi Arabia also secured a potential $100 billion worth of investment opportunities with India, over two years. In a break with protocol highlighting the importance of the prince’s visit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally greeted the prince on his arrival. Usual Indian government protocol would involve sending a junior official to meet foreign dignitaries. The Saudi-India deal was not simply binary. The deal contains several agreements to boost bilateral investment, infrastructure, tourism, housing, and communications. MBS also voiced his intent to fight terrorism and cyber-crime through enhanced cooperation with India. Saudi Arabia’s state owned Public investment Fund, which is the main mechanism for Saudi investment, signed a memorandum of understanding with Oyo, India’s largest hospitality firm.

MBS’s Asian tour finished in China. Despite China’s stated aim to deepen relations with Iran, it offered Saudi Arabia support in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder. A strong focus was placed on energy, in which China is a net importer. Regional economic deals were signed, and efforts made to integrate Saudi Arabia in the Belt & Road initiative. Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state oil company, will sign an agreement to build a refinery and develop a petrochemical project in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning.

Where once Saudi monarchs embraced caution and cold calculation, MBS’s total recalibration of approaching Saudi interests can alienate allies. However, Saudi financial resources, and regional and religious clout, will find no shortage of suitors to benefit from its interests.  That does not preclude however, issues arising. Will Saudi public opinion turn restive of MBS’s downplaying of China’s state crackdown on its Muslim population? Will western corporate investment in Saudi Arabia conflict with western political interests? What will be Iran’s response to the Saudi attempt at economic strangulation?

MBS has enhanced his country’s profile, and redefined Saudi decision-making regarding foreign policy. He is not afraid to undermine, and test existing alliance structures. Where once Saudi monarchs were tempered through consensus, MBS new narrative of his vision of Saudi Arabia confers decision making through near absolute authority.

Christian Kurzydlowski has a PhD in history from Goldsmiths College, University of London. Having previously done a Masters of Arts at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London. He is passionate about interpreting current affairs through historical knowledge, to create scenarios for potential future trends. After a decade of globetrotting, he is back in his hometown of Toronto, Canada.


  1. A blueprint for an economic diversification and the reduction of
    Saudi dependence on oil, while simultaneously developing numerous public and private sectors.
  2. Xi Jinping, The Governance of China II. (Foreign Language Press, Beijing, 2017). p.502.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.






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