One of the headlines from the G20 meet in Argentina last year was about the sidelining of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. A picture from the meeting, which brought together the world’s most influential economies, showed the crown prince, also known as MBS, standing on the periphery; worse, he seemed to be ignored while other world leaders were seen smiling and exchanging pleasantries.
That one picture may not tell the whole story. But coming as it did after the brutal murder of The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, apparently under the instructions of MBS, it would not be too much to assume that MBS was being given the pariah treatment despite his reform drive—allowing women to drive, permitting cinema theatres to open after 35 years and taking steps to wean the Saudi economy off its dependence on oil.
The Khashoggi story may have receded from the international headlines but many in the West still seem wary of the company of MBS.
Against this backdrop, a swing through Asia—Pakistan, India and China—would clearly signal to the world that there are some countries that MBS can still call friends.
The visit to Pakistan earlier this week underlined the importance of Riyadh in Islamabad’s scheme of things. Long known as a benefactor, MBS promised Pakistan, which is struggling with a balance of payments crisis, $20 billion in investments in areas ranging from food to agriculture to energy.
Saudi-Pakistan bonhomie dates back decades—besides sharing a religious identity, Pakistani troops have guarded the Saudi royal family for years. Those close ties frayed when Pakistan refused to send troops for the war against the Houthis in 2015. But with the US pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have improved—against the backdrop of the Saudis looking to Pakistan as a back-up in the event Iran develops an atomic bomb.
Given this, India cannot expect Saudi Arabia to shame Pakistan by name in the Pulwama terror attack. But New Delhi will be looking for strong wording in a joint statement against terrorism. Whether it will refer to “cross-border terrorism", a euphemism for Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, is to be seen.
New Delhi will, however, expect Riyadh to understand its need to respond firmly to Pakistan’s provocations and not take Islamabad’s side when the military response transpires.
India can take heart from the fact that MBS accommodated its request to de-hyphenate the India-Pakistan visits as a result of which the Saudi royal returned home for a day before resuming his India visit.
The Pakistan-Saudi joint statement does not refer to the Kashmir dispute, but pats Pakistan on the back for recent peace initiatives like the Kartarpur corridor.
India can also feel encouraged by the fact that MBS is looking to expand Saudi investments here—in energy and infrastructure. In fact, India is one of the four countries in Asia that Riyadh is looking to deepen strategic linkages with, besides China, Japan and South Korea.
Deepening of defence cooperation and holding of naval exercises—being planned by the two countries—will help boost strategic confidence in the other country, as will increased intelligence sharing to prevent terrorism.