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International relations

Saudi crown prince plays Asia card amid Western criticism

Regional energy tour aimed at countering Western criticism over Khashoggi murder

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman   © Reuters

RIYADH -- Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman plans to make a tour of Asian nations, including China, India and South Korea, as early as February, informed sources said on Wednesday.

The crown prince has drawn criticism from the international community, especially from the U.S. and Europe, over his handling of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He apparently hopes to counter criticism from the U.S. and Europe by deepening energy cooperation with Asia.

According to the sources, the crown prince plans to visit India, Pakistan, China and South Korea as early as February. Saudi Arabia is also considering including Southeast Asia on his itinerary.

Separately from the Asian tour, the crown prince will likely visit Japan in June to attend a summit of leaders from the G-20 major economies in Osaka, the sources said.

China and India want to strengthen their relations with Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, as their energy demand is expected to grow further.

South Korea has also attached importance to its relations with the kingdom, competing with Japan, and pledged to cooperate with Saudi economic reforms spearheaded by the crown prince.

Saudi Arabia wants to forge closer relations with Asia, a promising growth market. State-owned oil company Saudi Aramco has made clear its strategy to expand its footprint in the Asian downstream oil sector.

During the crown prince's Asian tour, Saudi Arabia is expected to sign several dozen memorandums of understanding on economic cooperation, especially in the oil and energy areas, with each of the countries he visits.

Saudi Aramco's Ras Tanura oil refinery and terminal in Saudi Arabia.   © Reuters

The Asian nations are expected to keep a distance from the Western nations stepping up their criticism of Saudi Arabia, and prioritize the actual benefit of energy cooperation with the kingdom.

Anti-Saudi sentiment is also weaker among ordinary people in Asia compared with the West.

Crown Prince Mohammed visited Europe and the U.S. in 2018 before Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a well-known critic of the Saudi government, was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October. But citizen groups and others staged violent anti-Saudi demonstrations over the attacks on the U.S. in September 2001, in which Saudis were involved. They also protested the country's interventions in the Yemeni civil war and human rights situation in the country.

Western leaders at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires last November also gave the crown prince a cold reception.

Tokyo and Riyadh confirmed that the two countries would strengthen economic cooperation when King Salman, the father of the crown prince, visited Japan in 2017. But the cooperation has stalled, with a ministerial meeting scheduled in Japan yet to be held. 

The Japanese government has refrained from openly criticizing the crown prince over the Khashoggi case, but the Saudi side is growing frustrated with delays in cooperation.

The trial for Khashoggi's killing began earlier this month, and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the five suspects. Riyadh has denied any involvement by Crown Prince Mohammed in the case, saying that people lower down in the organization committed the crime.

A United Nations investigation team arrived in Turkey on Monday to start an inquiry into the case.

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