Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) spent last week touring Asia’s three nuclear powers amid a lavish reception by Asian leaders and despite visible tensions amongst them. Bin Salman’s tour was meant to convey that he was still an active political player that cannot be ignored.
The 33-year-young crown prince started his Asia tour 15 February in Pakistan, his country’s historical ally, where he was given a royal welcome.
When his plane entered Pakistan’s airspace it was escorted by a formation of JF-17 thunder jets. Upon touching down, he was received by Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, a VVIP, at the Nur Khan Airbase
Khan accompanied MBS to the capital Islamabad in a vehicle he drove himself, and the authorities released 3,500 pigeons at the Saudi crown prince’s reception ceremony.
The seven-decade-old allies Riyadh and Islamabad signed agreements and memoranda of understanding worth $20 billion, most of which in the energy field, including an oil refinery and a complex for petrochemical industries in the coastal city of Gwadar, on the shores of the Arabian Sea, where China is building a large port.
The two countries have had strong ties since the creation of Pakistan and its secession from India. Islamabad and Riyadh have supported political Islamist powers since the late 1940s and cooperated against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989).
Khan’s victory in last year’s general elections helped cement ties between the two countries even further. Khan visited Riyadh twice since then.
Describing the strategic relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, MBS said he was “Pakistan’s ambassador in Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are jointly involved in the Afghanistan negotiations between the Taliban and the US. The two countries, in addition to the United Arab Emirates, were the only states to recognise the Taliban government (1996-2001) which the US invasion of the country overthrew following the events of 11 September 2001.
After spending two days in Islamabad, Bin Salman headed to Pakistan’s arch-enemy India, where its prime minister broke with government protocol to receive the Saudi crown prince with open arms at the airport.
Talks between Riyadh and New Delhi focused on energy, since Saudi Arabia is increasing its investments in the Indian sectors of oil, gas and electricity.
Indian energy is highly in demand, especially with the economic and industrial growth in Asia’s second-highest populated country after China.
CNN reported that Saudi Arabia is seeking to increase its investments in India to $100 billion.
Indians working in Saudi Arabia are a prime source of manpower in the kingdom. Indians constitute three million out of 11 million foreign workers residing in Saudi Arabia.
The crown prince said the two countries were in each other’s “DNA”, hailing strong ties between Riyadh and New Delhi. “Since we remember ourselves, we know Indian people as friends, and they are part of building Saudi Arabia in the past 70 years,” he added.
MBS’s tour of South Asia came amid tensions between the two nuclear powers Pakistan and India, a few days after a militant attack in Indian-administered Kashmir that involved a suicide bombing of a security convoy.
India accused Pakistan of laxity in facing terrorism while newspapers published in New Delhi and Mumbai alleged that militant and security elements tied to an extremist group executed the attack.
Pakistan and India had been at war thrice. The first confrontation was in 1947 after Pakistan gained its independence from India following the liberation of the Indian subcontinent from British colonialism.
The second and third wars were in 1966 and 1971, resulting in the independence of Bangladesh, formerly eastern Pakistan. In 1999, India and Pakistan engaged in the armed Kargil conflict.
Riyadh announced its intention to mediate between the two countries. The Saudi Foreign Ministry released a statement saying the kingdom’s goal was to minimise tensions between India and Pakistan and settle differences peacefully.
If Saudi mediation efforts are to succeed, Riyadh will come out not only as a secure energy source for the world, but a politically powerful world player.
In Beijing, where MBS arrived for a two-day visit 21 February, the crown prince was received by China President Xi Jinping, one of the world’s most powerful leaders.
China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, importing 17 per cent of Riyadh’s exports – the majority being oil – at a worth of $46 billion last year. Nineteen per cent of the kingdom’s imports come from China.
Recently, Chinese energy companies offered to buy five per cent of Saudi Aramco directly if the kingdom decided to float the world’s biggest oil producer on the stock market.
President Xi is seeking to push the Belt and Road Initiative, under which huge amounts of Chinese trade will pass through the Red Sea on which shores Riyadh owns the longest coasts. Meanwhile, MBS is promoting his 2030 Vision to reform his country on the economic, political and social levels.
Hundreds of Saudi businessmen and government officials accompanied the crown prince on his Asia tour, giving a clear economic shade to the visits.
International media reports believe the Asia tour – which was initially scheduled to include Indonesia and Malaysia, later cancelled without citing reasons – opens new economic and political horizons for Riyadh after the barrage of Western criticism the kingdom endured following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
None of the leaders of the countries MBS visited mentioned the Khashoggi case, nor did the Saudi crown prince refer to human rights files in the three Asian capitals.
The royal tour, after all, seems to have sought to prove the crown prince’s strength on the one hand, and his country’s ability to build diversified alliances that can save it from Western pressure on the other.
Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic moves are not limited to Asia, said political expert and researcher Mohamed Al-Said Idris. The kingdom and Russia have coordinated on oil affairs to save the market and oil prices from a slump.
“Saudi Arabia signed good arms deals with Moscow as well. These deals are important, though they will not replace US weaponry, agreements on which will not cease,” he added.
It looks, however, that Saudi Arabia can win strong allies in Asia, on the economic level in particular, which can allow it to circumvent European boycott pressure instigated by human rights groups.
“The kingdom’s new partnership with Russia, China and India, and its refraining from backing political Islam, will make it a necessary partner to the West in its war against terrorism,” stated Idris.
MBS’ Asia tour was a “smart move”, according to CNN, that can reap economic benefits and political dividends in the medium term.
Saudi Princess Goes To Washington
Saudi Arabia has appointed Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan as its new ambassador to the United States, the first time the kingdom has named a woman to such a post.
A daughter of a former Saudi ambassador to Washington, prince Bandar bin Sultan, Princess Reema is a graduate in museology from an American university.
In October 2017, she became the first woman to lead a Saudi sports federation covering sporting activities for both men and women. The World Economic Forum also recently appointed her to its Young Global Leaders programme.
“Part of empowering females in the kingdom is appointing the most efficient person for any position, whether a man or a woman,” Samar Al-Mogren, a Saudi commentator, told the Website the Media Line. Al-Mogren described the move as “very positive” and said it gave hope to other Saudi women.
“I expect to see more Saudi women filling political roles in future,” he said, adding that over the past 10 to 15 years, the status of women in Saudi Arabia has been improved, and doors have started opening for them to work in diplomacy and other fields that were previously reserved for men.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Saudi Arabia’s smart move