Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 February 2006
Issue No. 781
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Touring the East

King Abdullah's tour of Asia reflects a change in style on the part of the Saudi royal family. Doaa El-Bey looks at the economic and political outcomes of the visit

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is looking east for markets for its crude oil and venues for investment in an attempt to reduce its dependence on the West. In a two-week tour, King Abdullah visited China and India, both witnessing economic booms, and Malaysia and Pakistan, two further expanding Islamic states. The visit aimed to boost bilateral relations with the four states, a move which cast light on the newly-adopted Saudi policy of moderation and openness with other states. Although King Abdullah signed a number of economic agreements, political achievements further enhanced the importance of the tour.

The first leg of King Abdullah's tour saw the Saudi monarch in China, the second largest oil importer in the world, accounting for 12 per cent of world energy consumption with a third of its supply coming from abroad, a figure likely to double over the next five years. Its gas imports are expected to increase from zero in 2000 to 20-25 million cubic metres by 2010. The two states signed five cooperation agreements in the fields of oil and gas. It is a mutually beneficial partnership: China needs a secure source of energy and Saudi Arabia can supply it. Beijing aims to stockpile up to one month's consumption in reserve.

Firmer economic ties could lead to closer cooperation in the political field. During King Abdullah's visit, both states agreed to unite their efforts in fighting terrorism. Stronger ties would also give Saudi Arabia the chance to improve the conditions of over 7 million Muslims living in China who have often been subject to the government-led war on terror.

In addition, increasing economic ties can also encourage China to assume a more active role in the region to protect its interests. Given its strong relations with Iran, China can play a role in bridging the gap between Iran on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states on the other. The two states discussed the importance of resolving the issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions peacefully.

Further, Chinese criticisms of the US's anti-terror campaign in the Middle East accords with Saudi views. Early last year, China called on the US-led multinational forces to withdraw from Iraq and emphasised its preference for a larger UN role in the country.

The second stop on King Abdullah's tour was India, the fourth largest market for Saudi goods. During the visit, India and Saudi signed a joint declaration that committed the two countries to develop a strategic energy partnership. Saudi Arabia currently supplies India with 26 per cent of its crude oil. The new deal will lead to an increase in Saudi investment in oil refining, marketing and storage in India.

The joint declaration came to crown a booming economic relation between the two states. However, political ties have not been good as a result of Saudi-Pakistani ties. After King Abdullah's visit -- the first by a Saudi head of state in 50 years -- political relations, some analysts say, could witness a renaissance. King Abdullah reiterated his view that the long dispute between India and Pakistan could be resolved through negotiation. At the end of King Abdullah's visit, both states agreed to fight global terrorism.

Political achievements gained more prominence in Malaysia and Pakistan, the third and fourth legs on the tour. King Abdullah's visit to Malaysia came at a time when Muslims are in a state of division. The two Islamic states looked into the various challenges facing the Muslim world, including terrorism, poverty, unemployment, economic instability and calls for political reform.

Malaysia's importance as a venue for these discussions comes from the fact that the Muslim world views it as a successful model of a modern Islamic state. It has earned a reputation for being a model multi-racial nation, in which majority Muslims, Christians, Buddhist Chinese, and Hindu Tamils worked together for independence. Since, it has successfully emerged as a balanced secular though Islamic state; a model, some argue, for other Islamic states. Taking seriously the Malaysian example could prove beneficial to Saudi Arabia in its own journey towards reform and modernisation.

During Abdullah's visit, the heads of the two states agreed to work together to fulfil the terms of the Mecca Declaration. The declaration, which drew a strategy for moderation by combating terrorism and extremism, as well as defending the image of Islam, was issued by leaders of the 57-member Jeddah-based Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which met in December in Mecca. Malaysia is the current chair of the OIC. The declaration aimed to encourage political and social reform in member states by improving education, speeding up economic development, increasing trade, and guaranteeing more rights for women.

Espousing the view that Islam and modernity can go hand in hand, Malaysia is now calling for strengthening trade and economic links among Muslim countries in order to move into the mainstream of the global economy. During Abdullah's visit, Malaysia and Saudi signed cooperation agreements in the fields of science, culture, education and matters of taxation.

On the fourth and final leg of Abdullah's eastern tour, taking in Pakistan, the heads of the two states agreed to expand and facilitate investment in the fields of both energy and infrastructure. They signed five agreements on promoting cooperation in technical education, political consultation and easing taxes on bilateral trade. Saudi Arabia pledged some $573 in assistance of Pakistan to rebuild areas that were hit by last October's earthquake. The quake left more than three million people homeless.

At the political level, the two Islamic states discussed important issues like Iran's nuclear programme, Iraq, Afghanistan and terrorism. They agreed to cooperate in combating terrorism and other crimes such as money laundering, drug trafficking and arms smuggling. Both states are fighting Islamic militancy at home.

King Abdullah reiterated his belief that an early resolution of all outstanding issues between Pakistan and India, especially the issue of Kashmir, through negotiations, would benefit the two states. He did not rule out the possibility of Saudi mediation in the Kashmir issue.

In a further show of accord, the two heads of states issued a joint statement urging the world to accept the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian legislative elections as it reflected the will of Palestinians and expressed hopes that the militant group would work for peace in the Middle East.

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