Shunned by European leaders, Bin Salman embarks on Asian tour
First stop Islamabad gives royal welcome as prince frees 2,100 Pakistanis in Saudi jails
Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan and Saudi Arabia’s prince Mohammed bin Salman in Islamabad, February 18th. Photograph: Press handout via Reuters
Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has embarked on a three-nation Asian tour with the aim of demonstrating he is welcome in the east if not in some western capitals. Success is assured as he has reverted to the oil-rich kingdom’s traditional money-and-oil driven foreign policy to court friends and counter detractors.
Bin Salman has been cold-shouldered by European but not US leaders following the brutal murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul last October.
While Riyadh says 15 unnamed men are on trial, five of whom face the death penalty, western politicians and human rights advocates seek transparency in this affair. Eastern leaders cannot afford to shun the prince.
Pakistan accorded a royal welcome to the prince, the first Saudi leader to visit in 15 years. His plane was escorted to the military airport by Pakistani air force jets where he was greeted on Sunday by prime minister Imran Khan and a 21-gun salute. Monday was declared a public holiday in Islamabad, the capital. The prince reciprocated by ordering the release of 2,100 Pakistanis in Saudi jails.
Riyadh and Islamabad signed contracts valued at more than $20 billion (€17.6 billion) and the crown prince promised that economic co-operation between their countries would “grow every month, every year”. Saudi Arabia has already provided $6 billion in loans to boost debt-ridden Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves.
The Islamic Republic and the Saudi kingdom, self-appointed guardians of Islam’s holiest cities, have had close relations since 1951.
The prince’s next destination is New Delhi where the atmosphere could be tense due to last week’s killing in Kashmir of 44 Indian soldiers by a suicide bomber, and the killing of four soldiers in a gun battle on Monday. India blamed the attack on Pakistan and vowed punishment.
India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, however, has no choice but to warmly welcome the crown prince. Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth most important business partner and provides 20 per cent of India’s oil. Indians form the largest community of foreign workers in the kingdom.
Later in the week Bin Salman will visit China, the largest importer of Saudi oil and gas, to conclude development and trade deals. Like Riyadh, Beijing is trying to extend its influence in Asia and Africa by investing in infrastructure and promoting commerce.
The crown prince seeks the support of these countries in efforts to isolate and sanction Shia Iran, seen by Saudi Arabia as its main competitor for regional reach. He is certain to get Pakistan’s backing but China and India are unlikely to oblige. Both are customers for Iran’s oil and are reluctant to join the Saudi-US led campaign against Tehran.
Beijing is a signatory of the 2015 deal providing for the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief and does not approve of Washington’s withdrawal.
Eastern deal-making is unlikely to promote normalisation of Bin Salman’s relations with the west. Although the Trump administration continues to stand by the crown prince, the US Senate blames him for Khashoggi’s murder and has called for a halt to US support for the kingdom’s Yemen war.
Charges of culpability over the murder have not deterred the crown prince from maintaining contact with Saud al-Qahtani, a close adviser who was reported to have been dismissed after being accused of masterminding the Khashoggi operation.
Growing international opposition to the Yemen war has not convinced the crown prince, who is defence minister, to halt the campaign against rebel Houthis and reach a peace deal.