Updated Mar 16, 2019 | 12:00 IST | Dr. Swaran Singh
Shunned by the West since last October’s murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul; censored for arrests of prominent women activists at home; and criticized for waging war in Yemen. The 33-year old de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mahammed Bin Salman (MBS), is currently on a visit to three countries in Asia, Pakistan, India and China.
He had earlier included Malaysia and Indonesia as well in his itinerary. But not only the last two legs of his tour got cancelled at the very last minute but his visit to Pakistan was delayed by a day. And given India’s sensitivities, MBS had to fly from Islamabad to New Delhi, not directly, but with a stopover in Riyadh.
But for all the acrobatics, MBS’s venture has so far failed to burnish his image as a just ruler who shot into prominence in November 2017 for arresting dozens of princes and top officials of his kingdom as part of his anti-corruption campaign that made each of them pay huge sums of money as a price for freedom.
The planned five-nation tour was meant to show the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s (KSA’) increasing interest in its East Asian neighbors. These nations have become KSA’s important partners as the shale oil boom hit the U.S. in 2005 followed by the global economic slowdown since 2008 weakening the economic engagement of the US with the Gulf nations.
But, in spite of American apathy, opposition, and CIA’s assessments linking MBS to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, President Donald Trump has continued with his refrain of “He’s the leader of Saudi Arabia. They’ve been a very good ally.”
Riyadh has been Washington’s most important ally in the Middle East and their enduring strategic partnership gives America high stakes in MBS’ staying in power. In May 2017, Riyadh had hosted Trump’s first foreign visit. It was a big boost to Trump’s ratings at home. The two nations signed contracts worth US$ 380 billion including US$ 110 billion for weapons procurement.
In this backdrop, the Crown Prince showcasing bonhomie with Asian leaders, easing certain social restrictions at home and his emergence as a major regional challenge to Iran are expected to help President Trump override American disaffection to engaging him. Salman’s weapons procurements and his dollar investments can keep the American economy afloat.
Indeed, his first host in the Asian tour, Pakistan, could not have been more desperate to host a foreign leader. Given Pakistan’s internal security situation, hardly any world leader would visit Islamabad. After the proverbial four-hour visit of President Bill Clinton during April 2000 and George W Bush’s in March 2006, only the Chinese President Xi Jinping who visited Pakistan in April 2015 followed by Iranian President Dr. Hassan Rouhani in March 2016.
In other words, there were only four visits of world leaders in the last two decades.
Therefore, MBS’s plane was escorted by F-16s fighters of the Pakistan Air Force. Imran Khan, who took over as Prime Minister last August, is facing a near-bankruptcy situation which has made him impose severe austerity measures including auctioning of all official luxury cars. One saw him renting several Prado SUVs. He personally drove the Crown Prince from the airport as roads were bedecked with gigantic posters of MBS and dotted with troupes of hired dancers.
Eighty containers of the Prince’s personal effects reportedly accompanied MBS including his special gym that was set up for his one night stay at the Prime Minister’s residence.
The next morning MBS was conferred Pakistan’s highest honour, Nishan-e-Pakistan (Order of Pakistan). All this because last October Saudi Arabia had been the first to offer Pakistan a bailout package of US$6 billion that was followed by UAE making a similar offer.
This visit resulted in seven agreements including investment contracts worth US$ 20 billion which was called as the “first step” in their expanding cooperation.
All this also resulted in the Prince going over board to describe himself as the Ambassador of Pakistan in Saudi Arabia. But it was their Joint Statement that was to set the mood at his next destination, India.
Barely four days after the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for the February 14 suicide attack killing 44 soldiers of India’s Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Pulwama in Kashmir, and India’s Cabinet Committee on Security announced that India had ‘incontrovertible evidence’ of Pakistan’s involvement, the MBS-Imran Joint Statement in Islamabad said: “The Saudi side lauded Pakistan’s important positions in the Islamic world and its efforts for regional peace and security.” It even underlined the need to redress the “politicization of the UN listing regime”, alluding to India’s efforts to list the Pakistan based chief of Jaish-e-Mohammad MasoodAzhar as a ‘global terrorist’.
This obvious pro-Pakistan tilt only hardened the tone of his Indian interlocutors. This impression was reinforced by the fact that MBS was made to come to New Delhi, not directly, but with a short stopover at Riyadh.
However, to ensure that this negative sentiment is not allowed to go too far, Indian prime minister, now busy with his election rallies, broke protocol to personally receive MBS at New Delhi’s International airport.
Modi had visited Saudi Arabia in April 2016. He had met MBS during the last G20 summit in November in Argentina, though several participants at that summit had openly received calls from domestic constituencies to ensure the arrest of MBS and others shunned him.
The reason for Modi’s tolerance of MBS is that Saudi Arabia is the largest supplier of crude oil to India. India sources 17 per cent of its crude oil and 32 per cent of liquid petroleum gas from Saudi Arabia. The India-KSA bilateral trade of US$ 27.48 billion last year makes India the fourth largest trading partner of Saudi Arabia.
But nothing compares with India’s other stake in the relationship. Over 3 million Indians work in Saudi Arabia, acting as a unique bridge with no match whatsoever.
Now driven by MBS ‘Vision 2030’, both India and KSA are trying to take their relationship beyond the core energy sector cooperation. India has a unique advantage of having friendly relations with all of the West Asian nations including Israel, Iran, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, though these nations themselves are at odds with each other.
But the terrorist attack in Kashmir did cast its shadow. Not only was it a major issue in the talks in New Delhi, but it lowered the excitement over the visit.
In the end the two signed five agreements in the areas of investment, tourism, housing and information and broadcasting services and also set up a ministerial level ‘Strategic Partnership Council’ to provide direction to future partnerships in the political, security, trade, investment and cultural spheres.
As regards the China-leg of the three-nation tour of MBS starting on Thursday, Beijing chose to prefix it by hosting last Sunday a high-level delegation from Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran. The delegation included Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad JavadZarif, the Speaker of Iran’s parliament Ali Laijani, and Oil Minister BijanZanganeh.
In the context of the against angry onslaughts from President Donald Trump ever since he withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal last May, Beijing has stood firmly with Iran. Therefore, while welcoming his Iranian guests, Foreign Minister Wang Yi underlined how he and millions of Chinese watched in admiration the way the Iranian Foreign Minister last week defended his country’s position at the Munich Security Conference.
The two sides also underlined exploring ways for deepening their ‘strategic trust’ and working together. But this in no way bypass the growing centrality of Saudi Arabia in Beijing’s worldview on the West Asian region.
China, which has traditionally kept a safe distance from the U.S. preoccupation with the Gulf region, has lately been expanding its role with specific initiatives in resolving conflicts in Yemen and Syria. In these, China has been seen aligning with the region’s most powerful state, Saudi Arabia.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud had likewise visited Beijing in March 2017 aligning his country with China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative as the two sides signed contracts worth US$65 billion.
Indeed, China’s bilateral trade with Saudi Arabia, that overtook that of the U.S. in 2013, has moved way ahead reaching US$ 56 billion last year which is now much bigger than either the U.S. figure of US$38 billion or Japan’s US$ 36 billion.
Today, China alone accounts for 15% of Saudi oil exports compared to just 8% a decade earlier and this trend seems unstoppable.
But given the recent hits that his personal image has received, the contentious equations in the China-India-Pakistan triangle and his tour being preceded by a major terror attack raising tension in India-Pakistan relations, the three-nation tour of MBS and the resultant expansion of Saudi Arabian engagements with these east Asian neighbors may provide political dividends only in the long run.
Dr.Swaran Singh is Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) and Senior Fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Colombo)