Saudi Arabia looks both east and west

15 September 2023

MEED's October 2023 special report on Saudi Arabia also includes: 

Gigaproject activity enters full swing
Infrastructure projects support Riyadh’s logistics ambitions

Aramco focuses on upstream capacity building
Saudi chemical and downstream projects in motion
Riyadh rides power projects surge
Saudi banks track more modest growth path
Jeddah developer restarts world’s tallest tower


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud has been enjoying the international limelight of late, with a trip to India to take part in the G20 summit on 9 and 10 September. There, he met a succession of international leaders, including India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A few days earlier, he had announced the launch of a new international body, the Global Water Organisation. Details of its purpose and funding remain limited for now, but it will have its headquarters in Riyadh and is expected to lead international efforts to better manage the world’s water resources.

All this activity is a sign that MBS remains intent on changing Saudi Arabia’s position in the world order – also evident in its decision in March to join the China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a dialogue partner.

That was followed on 24 August by an invitation to join the Brics group, along with the UAE, Iran and three other countries.

Saudi is engaged in extreme hedging … I think Riyadh has suggested reluctance to join Brics just to buy time and signal to Western partners that it is not too eager to join. But I believe Riyadh has long made that call
Cinzia Bianco, European Council on Foreign Relations

Weighing the options

Yet Riyadh also appears keenly aware of the potential pitfalls as it tries to carve out a different role for itself. That was clearly seen in its ambiguous reaction to the Brics invitation, with Foreign Affairs Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan saying it wanted to find out “further details on membership requirements” before committing to join.

Analysts saw those comments as an attempt to placate those in Western capitals concerned about China's growing influence in the Gulf region, and in the UAE and Saudi Arabia in particular.

“I think Faisal bin Farhan’s statement was one of trying to balance expectations and signal to the Biden administration that the Saudis are not definitively taking sides, but rather are seeking to maximise their own leverage in multiple relationships that they see as not mutually exclusive,” says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“There is a feeling in the Biden administration that, under Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE has made a choice to go its own way and do its own thing, but that with Saudi Arabia, there is still a chance to offer Mohammed bin Salman a package that can outdo anything China can come up with.”

Such considerations are nevertheless likely to delay rather than prevent Riyadh from taking up the offer to join Brics or deepen its involvement with the SCO.

There are good reasons for moving with some caution, though. Recent UK media reports have suggested that Saudi Arabia is lobbying to join a project by the UK, Italy and Japan to develop a next-generation fighter jet – something that would give it access to technology that would be hard or impossible to replicate from other, non-Western sources.

The issue will likely be on the agenda if and when Mohammed bin Salman travels to London in the coming months – a visit that has been suggested but is unconfirmed at the time of writing. Such visits remain controversial in Western capitals, where the diplomatic concerns that emerged over relations with Saudi Arabia in 2018 are far from resolved.

“Saudi is engaged in extreme hedging,” says Cinzia Bianco, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Indeed, I think Riyadh has suggested reluctance to join Brics just to buy time and signal to Western partners that it is not too eager to join. But I believe Riyadh has long made that call and will join Brics, as well as the SCO.

“I am not entirely sure what MBS can achieve in London. I know that they want in on the Tempest fighter jet and to sign a bilateral free trade agreement with the UK, but on both questions, there are substantial political obstacles.”

The challenge is that, as 2030 nears, so much of Mohammed bin Salman’s credibility has been vested in that year that officials will feel under intense pressure to deliver results, however they achieve them
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy

Domestic performance

On the domestic front, there are other, broader considerations for Mohammed bin Salman.

As was the case with the launch of the new Global Water Organisation, he often attaches himself closely to new initiatives – something also seen in Riyadh’s bid to host the Expo 2030 trade fair and the broader Vision 2030 strategy to remodel the economy. However, this creates risks if the new projects fail to create the stir that officials hope.

“There’s no doubt that the Saudi crown prince has wagered a substantial degree of financial and political capital as part of his transformation agenda for the country,” says Robert Mogielnicki, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

On the other hand, it might be that there is so much change under way that all the other activity overshadows any failures.

“Somewhat counterintuitively, the massive scale and scope of new investments and initiatives make it harder to point at any one specific area of underperformance as a reflection of the broader transformation process,” adds Mogielnicki.

At the same time, the whole apparatus of the Saudi state will be working hard to ensure that the crown prince’s ambitions are as close to being realised as possible.

“I agree that MBS risks running up reputational problems in the next few years, especially if 2030 nears and some of the gigaprojects show signs of lagging behind with little discernible development,” says Ulrichsen.

“The challenge is that, as 2030 nears, so much of Mohammed bin Salman’s credibility has been vested in that year that officials will feel under intense pressure to deliver results, however they achieve them.”

Image: New Delhi, 11 September 2023 – Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets India's President Droupadi Murmu at the Presidential Palace (Rashtrapati Bhavan). Credit: Saudi Press Agency
Dominic Dudley
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