As a famous American economist once said, politics is not the art of the possible. It is, in fact, the ability to comprehend realities and foresee the future, then work accordingly. The map of global alliances is everchanging. As a result, new power poles are being formed and with this growing risks and opportunities. States that understand this map and take the initiative to be proactive can and are capable of creating change and making a difference.
Despite having a strong, longstanding relationship with the West, Saudi Arabia in its new strategy today is reshaping the map of its international relations: from the principle of being open to all, to building interests and relations, to entering strategic partnerships. This does not mean establishing an alternative; it is a complementary action stemming from the fact that leading nations do not limit their stakes to only one block or country but go further to build a vast, balanced network.
Following successful visits to Pakistan, India, and China, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reinforced his efforts with visits to both South Korea and Japan, during which he visited Hiroshima and Tokyo after the conclusion of the 2019 G20 Osaka Summit. Prior to his tour of Asia’s leading nations, the Crown Prince had also visited the United States and Europe.
On closer observation, it is clear that these visits were made possible through extensive arrangements and the joint efforts of dedicated task forces. It is a known fact that the Crown Prince has always made it his priority that visits such as these should produce real, significant outcomes, and not just be mere protocol tours. With regards to South Korea specifically, the Crown Prince’s visit signaled an important turning point in Saudi-Korean relations. Many observers noted the extraordinary reception he received, both the official and popular welcome and attention.
The reception ceremony and luncheon hosted by South Korean President Moon Jae-in were attended by the globe’s most prominent figures in the field of business and investment. During that same evening, the Crown Prince scheduled individual meetings with every attendee. The economic milieu considers the Saudi Vision 2030 as a window that will open up tremendous opportunities for mutual investment and new projects.
President Moon Jae-in’s discourse regarding the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia was perhaps an indicator of how many East Asian countries view the Kingdom today. He described Saudi Arabia as an important and influential nation, South Korea’s key supplier of oil, the largest country in terms of the projects implemented by Korean companies outside Korea, and the biggest country to invest in South Korea. All this is consistent with, and adds up to, Saudi Arabia’s openness with both the East and West.
Relations with the West remain strong, and economic partnerships and joint ventures are increasingly growing. However, at the same time, it can be said that the situation remains consistent regarding Saudi ties with countries of the East. The inauguration of the expansion of the Residue Upgrading Complex and Olefin Downstream Complex S-Oil, an investment worth $6 billion, represents a new phase in venture investment expansion in South Korea. S-Oil is the third largest oil refinery in South Korea, and Saudi Aramco has a 60 percent stake in it, an investment that has been explained by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a means to create strategic cooperation that will harvest added value through vital partnerships between both countries.
It can also be said that the presence of the Crown Prince at this year’s G20 summit was an asset. Saudi Arabia will host the next G20 summit in Riyadh and the meetings held by Crown Prince with the world’s top leaders undoubtedly caught media attention. His meeting with the President of the United States Donald J. Trump reflected the strength of Saudi-US relations, and particularly the special rapport between the Crown Prince and President Trump who said of their meeting, “It’s an honor to be with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, a friend of mine, a man who has really done things in the last five years in terms of opening up Saudi Arabia. And I think especially what you’ve done for women. I’m seeing what’s happening; it’s like a revolution in a very positive way.”
Judging from the presence of the Crown Prince, either in the main conference room or during side sessions and meetings, it was clear the direct personal relationships he has with world leaders, which he cleverly employs to ensure political success, strong ties, and mutual partnerships and interests.
As for Saudi Arabia, though seen as an important global economic player due to its role in the energy and business sectors, it has entrenched its influential political presence by challenging Iran's meddling in the region, countering the disruptive policies and militias, and combating terrorism. Therefore, it perhaps comes as no surprise that President Trump hailed the Kingdom’s efforts saying, “The whole world is grateful for the efforts of Saudi Arabia in combating terrorism.”
During his time in Japan, the Crown Prince ensured that his visit was as symbolic as it was significant. It particularly had great resonance amongst the Japanese people when he visited Hiroshima and Peace Memorial Museum. He also met a Japanese woman who escaped death after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The humanitarianism, empathy, and concern expressed by the Crown Prince was evident, and it also sent a clear political message that Saudi Arabia is against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and supports nuclear disarmament. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is one of the first countries to accede to the NPT. Therefore, both Saudi Arabia and the US have a consistent stand against the Iranian nuclear project, which is a threat not only to the region but also the whole world.
On the side of Saudi-Japanese relations, the Crown Prince’s meeting with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was important in supplementing the draft strategic relations founded in 2016 during a previous visit by the Crown Prince to Tokyo, where a joint action group was formed for a mutual Saudi-Japanese vision. It is clear that Japan is looking today at the Saudi Vision 2030 with great interest. Indeed, Japan's Prime Minister said to Prince Mohammed at the Osaka meeting that the Saudi Vision 2030 is a major, unsurpassed reform process designed to discontinue reliance on oil and diversify the industry.
Saudi Arabia's message is clear: Yes, we are heading East and promoting our interests and relations there. Nevertheless, Riyadh affirms that its strategic relations are integrated with all other key nations of the world, and are based on strong, long-lasting partnerships and interests. The Kingdom is aware that no matter how strong the political wagon is being pushed, the one thing ultimately leading it is the helm of economics.