The Debate

King Abdullah’s Legacy in Asia

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The Debate

King Abdullah’s Legacy in Asia

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah played a major role in maneuvering the kingdom toward Asia.

After spending multiple days in intensive care, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud of Saudi Arabia has died at the age of 90. He is being succeeded by his brother, 79-year-old Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz. King Abdullah’s death comes at a geopolitically turbulent time for the Middle East as a region. With the effects of Syria’s civil war still reverberating across the region, amplified by a growing Islamic State threat to the north and a ever-intensifying Houthi rebellion in Yemen to the South, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has stood as a bastion of monarchic stability in a troubled region. In addition to acute regional crises, Saudi Arabia’s foe across the Persian Gulf, Iran, continues to gain geopolitical leverage across the region. Additionally, with world crude oil prices at roughly $50 per barrel, the resource-dependent Saudi government could face a fiscal nightmare.

King Abdullah, domestically regarded as one of the more reformist Saudi monarchs, was hardly absent when it came to the kingdom’s foreign policy with countries outside the Middle-East. In particular, he oversaw a major period of diplomatic rapprochement between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and almost every major Asian country. Where previous Saudi monarchs had focused on maneuvering the kingdom’s foreign policy almost exclusively within the Middle East, Abdullah eagerly sought out every opportunity to capitalize on the ascent of Asia’s major emerging economies. Even beyond economic cooperation and trade, Abdullah built broader strategic ties between Saudi Arabia and Asian states.

Most notably,  Abdullah was the first Saudi monarch to travel to China. With an inaugural trip in January 2006 — less than a year after he formally took over as monarch after King Fahd’s death — Abdullah kicked off Saudi Arabia’s relationship with China with a series of major agreements. Abdullah, shortly after taking the throne, adopted a “look east” trade policy for the kingdom — with the goal of having over half of all Saudi oil exports bound for Asia. Beijing, a major consumer of fossil fuels, saw a stable and sustainable diplomatic relationship with the Saudi government as key for its own energy security. Over the years under Abdullah’s reign, Saudi Arabia began to develop some faith in China’s ability to contribute constructively in helping the Middle East resolve its perennial international disputes. In 2008, following the devastating earthquake in Sichuan, Saudi Arabia was the largest aid donor for China. In 2009, China took over from the United States as the top buyer of Saudi oil. That same year, Chinese President Hu Jintao discussed the scope for broader Sino-Saudi cooperation on regional issues. Since then, relations between Riyadh and Beijing have remained strong amid growing turbulence in the Middle East.

Similarly, in 2006, Abdullah embarked on a major bilateral initiative toward Asia’s other major emerging economy: India. At the conclusion of that 2006 trip, India and Saudi Arabia concluded a document known as the “Delhi Declaration,” which was the first major bilateral interaction between India and Saudi Arabia which had previously remained distant due to the kingdom’s reluctance to approach Islamic Pakistan’s rival. Saudi Arabia, for example, supported Pakistan’s cause in the India-Pakistan War of 1971 and, as a major U.S. ally, remained distant from Soviet-aligned states (India and the Soviet Union signed a Treaty of Friendship in 1971). In 2010, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Saudi Arabia, resulting in the “Riyadh Declaration” which set out a road map for closer cooperation on a range of issues. Saudi Arabia’s new king, King Salman, visited India in his capacity as the government’s deputy prime minister last year and concluded a Memorandum of Understanding on Defense.

Beyond India and China, the King Abdullah years saw Saudi Arabia grow ever closer to Asia’s major Muslim states including Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Malaysia. The kingdom expanded its economic, political, and, in some cases, defense relationships with all these countries under Abdullah’s rule. Pakistan, in particular, remains a major partner for Saudi Arabia in South Asia. Under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia intensified its involvement in Pakistani internal affairs, always maintaining a close relationship with Pakistan’s military and intelligence community (though ties were strained during when Asif Ali Zardari was president and the Pakistan Peoples Party was in power). Current Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spent eight years in exile in Saudi Arabia, and as leaked Wikileaks cables showed, was a long-time favorite of the Saudi royal leadership, including King Abdullah.

Abdullah is well known for his reformist tendencies within the kingdom, but he also added a degree of dynamism to a Saudi foreign policy that had traditionally been myopically reliant on the country’s close alliance with the United States and its dominance over global oil production. With his overtures to major Asian states, King Abdullah succeeded in helping Saudi Arabia find friends outside the Middle-East. With King Salman now at the helm, the kingdom’s approach to Asia will likely remain unchanged for some time. Saudi Arabia remains internally stable, even if its neighbors are immersed in crisis.

All this said, King Salman, despite the persistent rumors about his poor health, has the potential to be a transformative Saudi ruler in his own right. Saudi Arabia’s domestic stability and approach to the Middle East will likely remain unpredictable, but its relationships with major Asian countries will endure through this period of royal succession.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Asif Ali Zardari was the prime minister of Pakistan. He was the nation’s president from from 2008 to 2013.