Mohammed bin Salman’s star may be fading in the West after the international outcry over Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, but Pakistan rolled out the red carpet for the Saudi crown prince during his visit. Little wonder: he is believed to have signed investment deals worth US$20 billion.
Pakistan was the first stop on a whirlwind tour that was supposed to also take Mohammed to Malaysia, Indonesia, India and China. Malaysia and Indonesia have since been scrubbed from the schedule for unexplained reasons and the remaining visits were delayed. Indonesia and Malaysia have said they are negotiating a revised itinerary.
Isolated itself by Western countries after failing to act against terrorist groups, Pakistan welcomed Mohammed as a diplomatic and economic ally when he touched down Sunday for the two-day visit. He was to leave Monday for a visit to India, which has been looking with unease at Pakistan’s growing relationship with the Saudis.
“We are creating a great future for Saudi Arabia and Pakistan,” Mohammed said at a formal banquet with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, at which he confirmed investments worth a reported $20 billion. The crown prince said this was only the “first phase” of a deepening partnership with the host country, adding that “we cannot say no to Pakistan …”
Apart from a hiccup when Islamabad declined to send troops to support the Saudi push into Yemen in 2015, Riyadh rarely does say no to Pakistan when it looks for an economic lifeline. Mohammed gave Khan about $6 billion at the “Davos in the Desert” investment conference in Riyadh in October, which the Pakistani leader attended despite a boycott over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the Saudi regime.
On Sunday he is believed to have signed memorandums on infrastructure projects, mineral explorations and petrochemicals, as well as balance of payments support by way of deferred payments for oil purchases. The key deal under discussion is a petrochemical complex at the port of Gwadar, which China is developing as a pivotal part of the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC).
If confirmed, the Saudi investment will have broader geopolitical implications, as it matches an $8 billion investment in the Iranian port of Chabahar by India. Iran and Saudi Arabia are locked in a bitter rivalry for Middle East supremacy, while India and Pakistan have an equally fractious relationship in South Asia.
What is Pakistan offering to Mohammed in return for his generosity?
Former Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif, who now heads the Saudi-created Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), gave a clue during a visit to Islamabad last week when he said Pakistan had promised to expand its involvement with the security organization. Is this an indication that Pakistan is willing to abandon the equal treatment it has adopted for Saudi Arabia and Iran since April 2015?
In allowing Raheel Sharif to lead the IMCTC, Pakistan has already signaled that it is ready to take sides on the Saudi-Iran question. Iran will be watching Mohammed’s visit closely to see just how far Islamabad is prepared to go in deepening its engagement with Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s relationship with Pakistan has been scarred by the car bomb suicide attack in Sistan-Baluchistan province last week by Jaish-e-Adl activists which killed 27 Iranian Republican Guards. Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has assured Iranian counterpart Javed Zarif his country will fully cooperate in bringing the perpetrators to justice, but more than verbal commitments will be needed to placate Tehran.
Meanwhile, the Jaish-e-Mohammed’s Pulwama terrorist attack, which killed 42 Indian police in a car bomb in Kashmir, has raised the temperature in India-Pakistan relations, with Delhi accusing Pakistan of continuing to allow the terrorist group and others like it to freely operate within its territory.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched a diplomatic campaign and withdrawn Pakistan’s Most Favored Nation trade status. Notably, Saudi Arabia also condemned the attack, raising intriguing questions over how Mohammed will navigate through the tensions between his country’s old ally Pakistan and India, a country of increasing significance in Saudi economic and strategic plans.
India would dearly like the crown prince to denounce Pakistani-based terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, but is unlikely to push too hard: Delhi has important economic and commercial stakes in Saudi Arabia and there are about four million Indian nationals living in the kingdom. On the flip side, Indians will not take kindly to any derogatory Saudi references to the Jammu and Kashmir issue.
There is no opposition in India to the development of closer ties with the Islamic nation, and it is likely that the Modi government will exceed the usual protocol in welcoming Mohammed. Like Pakistan, it has a strong economic interest in fostering a relationship: the Saudis plan to invest in the Indian petrochemicals industry, though the extent of its interest is unclear.
China, the last stop on the tour, may be in the most vulnerable position if Mohammed chooses to question the poor treatment of its minority Muslim Uighur population while he is in Beijing. But if past exchanges are any indication, the crown prince will probably avoid the issue altogether. Riyadh has always taken the view that it can influence China more by engagement than criticism.
This is in sharp contrast to the routine Saudi criticism of other countries where it believes that Muslim minorities are being unfairly treated, but Mohammed undoubtedly realizes that his country now has a better chance of fostering friendships in the east than in the hostile west.