Rescuing Saudi Arabia: Asia’s new role?

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: March 13, 2017 20:02:12 | Updated: November 11, 2017 12:40:45

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud began a month-long visit to various locations across Southeast and East Asia from February 26 on what may become a path-finding trip. Among them were two of the most developed Muslim countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, in that order, where he began a new series of economic cooperation: not so much developmental financing or worker-recruitment, as Muslim countries have come to expect of its "custodian" country, but an investment crusade enhancing mutual benefits. In capturing the essence of the monarch's visit, Karishma Vaswani deduced five reasons prompting the trip for a BBC article (February 28, 2017). 
In the first place, she argues, the Saudis may be "scratching backs." Given the drastic petroleum price-collapse over the past two-odd years, it needs increasing monetary returns if only to materialize Vision 2030 reforms (discussed later). Second, it is setting the stage to usurp Chinese oil-demands at a time when non-petroleum energy sources have been growing faster than ever before (in addition to shale, the resort to hydro, solar, wind, and electricity have been on an upswing). It simply does not want to lose China as an oil client. Third, as part of the diversification already underway in Saudi Arabia and the envisioned at-least-partial-privatization of ARAMCO (Saudi Arabian Oil Company, formerly known as Arabian-American Oil Company), King Salman is out to woo Asian investors. One reason why may be the fourth trigger: the Trump-driven Saudi desire to diversify dependence on the United States. Finally, the usage of investment to promote what may be called a kinder, gentler form of Islam dissemination/cultivation that differs from a Wahhabi image, hitherto advocated through "madrasas" and extreme messages.
Understanding these measures necessitates understanding the essence of Vision 2030. It was not the product of the oil price-collapse but the brainchild of another dramatic change in one of the most conservative countries in the world. It was the passage of leadership from septuagenarians/octogenarians into a far younger breed, in the process, to put it dramatically, changing the hitherto camel mindset into a 21st Century automobile (or technologically advanced paraphernalia) alternative. To recall, until King Salman (and including him), every king since 1953 has been a son of the founding father of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud (1932-53), whose 20-odd wives helped him to leave such a long-lasting legacy.
Ironically, just as King Abdulaziz ibn Saud shot to international fame by pumping enough oil to drown the consuming world from the 1930s and inviting U.S. corporations from as early as Herbert Hoover's "open door" policy approach from 1921 (after France and Great Britain excluded U.S. companies from Mesopotamian oil exploration under the 1920 San Remo Petroleum Agreement), to convert a sand-filled kingdom into a raw-material exporter, King Salman stands as the last of the oil-phase of Saudi history (and last son of ibn Saud to reign over the country). In between, oil made Saudi Arabia rise to the 25th spot of the Global Competitiveness Index and to the 26th spot on the Social Capital Index. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman's generation believes higher positions can be attained, and a non-petroleum economy is not only possible, but also within reach. 
As author of Vision 2030, the 32-year-old Crown Prince necessarily heralds a different set of Saudi priorities: one that shifts from petroleum dependence and an immigrant-based economy towards a far more open and diversified society inasmuch as can find clerical support. The oil price-collapse catalyzed this twist, but it was already in the works, as we can deduce from the several more ambitious, brinkmanship-based decisions taken by the Crown Prince: modernizing Mecca, of all places; his hawkish thrashing of Iranian surrogates in Yemen; opening more windows for women employment; and sifting foreign worker recruitment with more scrutiny. 
To be sure, Vision 2030 has spelled out some lofty goals and priorities. These include: (a) transforming the $2.5 trillion oil-wealth accumulated in the Saudi Public Investment Fund into the world's largest sovereign fund, that is, a state-owned fund investing in stocks, bonds, and other financial assets abroad; (b) expanding non-oil export-values six-fold from the currently slightly-under $50 billion annually, and the volumes from under 20 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) to over 50 per cent; (c) converting the secretive nationally-owned ARAMCO into a transparent body with up to 5.0 per cent shares traded in the stock-exchange; (d) shifting to a green-card system for foreign visitors, not only to boost overall tourism but to also invite non-Muslims; (e) expanding pilgrims from 8.0 million to 30 million, in short, cashing more full-fledgedly from this core Islamic requirement of the more-than-one-billion Muslims; and (f) taxing expatriates for just about all services, beginning with $27 per month now, but rising to $100 by 2020, an imposition that is already driving out so many foreigners, not just from poverty-ridden Asian countries, but also wealthy European countries and the United States. 
Of course, lesser goals of involving women in the economy, finding jobs for the double-digit-proportion of unemployed people in the labour force, and build more middle-class infrastructures, like a housing scheme, also play a prominent part in Vision 2030. Yet, the big-item list is jaw-dropping enough for international relations to warrant further discussion.
A POLITICAL TRAJECTORY SHIFT: Malaysia and Indonesia (and Brunei, also on King Salman's itinerary), could very well become stepping stones to the king's journey to Japan, the first in half-a-century, and to China, the largest forecasted purchaser of Saudi oil. These two countries speak more for the shifting Saudi sand politically than economically. Economically it means Japanese investments and technology will be seriously courted even as one monarch reaffirms the royal bonds with another, while China will be treated as the "commercially most important country" in the world, not just because of its huge oil needs, but also for the money it has which can be extracted by other Saudi exports and joint investment ventures. Just as a footnote, the United States was that "commercially most important country" until now.
Taken together, these two Asian economic giants and two advancing Muslim countries add up to a political trajectory shift from the west of potentially gigantic proportions. It is not, per se, a vote of no-confidence in a Trump-led United States, but a signal that the rest of the world does not need the United States to pin its future upon. It is more designed to show that independence, growing Saudi assertiveness, a broader-minded Saudi Arabia than that associated with the cloak-infused, closet-located image of the 20th Century. It is at once reinventing Islamic images and practices to suit the 21st Century, thereby eradicating all the negative impressions acquired from three-odd decades of violence and terrorism in the name of God (and partially funded by Saudi Arabia), but also projecting the new Saudi Arabia as a typical neo-liberal country, shorn of state-interventionism, with a business-as-usual atmosphere on the sandy sidewalks where foreigners may feel as free as, say, in Dubai; and shifting to a "new deal" with low-wage and highly-exploited workers who hitherto huddled to that country to do the dirty-work for its citizens to be able to rise up the social ladder if the skills were available.
For the United States, it means another Chinese advance at the very outset, leading to a global power-balance shift eventually. From one angle, it feeds China's 'One Belt, One Road' strategy at a time when the presence of U.S. Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean fleet has already been challenged in the South China Sea. From another, the flip-side of Trump's 'Make America great again', that is, the side that means "less attention to outside countries," allows China to supply many of the items Saudi Arabia had hitherto relied upon the United States for, from routine agricultural and manufactured items to technological counterparts, even military materials. At least those doors are now open for China to reap. 
Yet another angle highlights regional politics. Increasingly antagonistic Iranian-Saudi relations might fundamentally alter the regional power equation, given the brewing Iran-Russia-Syria axis, on the one hand, and the warmer Israel-U.S. relations under Trump, with Turkey as a spoiler player for all of the above countries and country-based constellations to guage. Whether Saudi-U.S. relations improve as Saudi-Israeli relations thaw will depend largely upon how President Trump's administration handles Saudi Arabia directly (that is, diplomatically), and indirectly (through travel-ban on Muslim countries, campaigns against Islamic terrorism, and other similar issues); and upon what China does, if anything, to seize the opportunity to become a Middle East player.
Nonetheless, a frayed Saudi-U.S. relationship, rather than outright hostility between them, would be sufficient to set off those tectonic global power-balancing ingredients and interpretations.
BANGLADESH-SAUDI RELATIONS: Something similar may also play upon Bangladesh-Saudi relations. We have stood behind Saudi Arabia's most recent stance against Islamic State-based terror, exported too many job-seekers there to remain disinterested, and received just as much remittance to not worry about the shape of events unfolding. Yet, we were not on the list of countries the king is visiting now, or have any indication of any future such visits, especially if it turns out to be a window-opening, momentous occasion. Frankly, we did not make the Saudi priority list.
We possess many of the credentials the new-look Saudi Arabia needs. In the first place, the low-wage workers Saudi Arabia is planning to eventually dispense with, remain a current need; and few other Muslim countries can supply the women workers in such numbers as needed as Bangladesh. On this front, we have to elevate the profile of our job-seekers: as noted, the lower they are, the less likely they will fit the emerging neo-liberal Saudi Arabia, meaning that we must invest in higher-skilled migrant workers. Secondly, we need a lot of cash for our developmental needs, which also rely heavily on oil imports. Therefore, the urgency of negotiating these issues with a slightly more business-like approach with Saudi Arabia, rather than as developmental-aid-receiving country, might be useful. Thirdly, since we have not paid as much economic attention to Muslim countries in general, given our focus on top-priority RMG exports, which hardly travel to Muslim country markets, we need to open other new windows on these other countries: not that we are not doing so, but expanding trade flows often helps catch the other country's attention more. Finally, we can project ourselves as being, much in the Malaysian and Indonesian mode, as a progressive Muslim country, thus, in sync with the domestic changes afoot inside Saudi Arabia, and capable of serving as a junior partner to China in purchasing Saudi oil, even making small-time investments there or borrowing from Saudi sovereign funds. We just need to take the lid off of whatever bottle of opportunities and mutual benefits with the new Saudi Arabia if the old was the one that kept us at a dignified distance.
As one of the largest Muslim countries, we have not fully cashed in on what is at stakes. As one of the most promising progressive Muslim countries, we have yet again not reaped all that that may mean. As one of the only Muslim countries ignored on this East/Southeast Asian trip of King Salman, we need to rethink where we are, what we must do to calibrate the different Saudi Arabia emerging, and how best this mutual relationship can fit into each of our national interests at this juncture. Just as Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 goes out of the domestic box to cultivate new foreign interests, we might begin by modifying our own Vision 2021 to do likewise. After all, something is brewing in Saudi Arabia of relevance to Asia and Muslims, and if corresponding gestures are being cultivated here, both large-profiled Muslim countries in a continent suddenly in the limelight for all the right reasons may simply pass each other by for the rest of this century.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies
& Governance at Independent
University, Bangladesh.

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