By Seema Guha
February 15, 2019
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is turning his focus to Asia, secure in the knowledge that no uncomfortable questions about Jamal Khashoggi would be raised by his hosts. Asian leaders, it is well known, are not in the habit of raising human right concerns and they certainly do not like to make a public issue about “sensitive” matters. The heir to the Saudi throne, commonly known by his initials MBS, arrives in Pakistan over the weekend. His tour will take him to India, Malaysia, Indonesia and China.
He will be in Delhi on February 19, 20 on his first official visit to India, at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India’s relation with Saudi Arabia has improved dramatically since 2006, when Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud arrived on an official visit.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went personally to welcome him at the airport. Since then, relations have looked up. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Riyadh in 2016, and buzz of major Saudi investments in India began. The PM met MBS, seen as the real power behind the throne in Buenos Aires, during the G20 summit in Argentina, last November.
The Crown Prince was once the darling of the US and European governments and media for his attempts to reform Saudi society from the clutches of the orthodox Wahabi clergy and attempts to shape the kingdom into a moderate Islamic kingdom. He cleared the streets of the all powerful moral police; allowed cinema houses and music back in and is in the process of building a huge entertainment district in Riyadh. All this had made MBS a favourite among young people in Saudi Arabia.
Not that he did not mess up even then. His disastrous war in Yemen, his decision to isolate Qatar was ill conceived. But the rest of the world was still not ready to write off the new Crown Prince who was seen as a breath of fresh air in the orthodox Saudi ruling house. But the brutal murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last October has dealt a deadly blow to MBS.
The fact that some of those held responsible for the barbaric act were part of his trusted security personnel is not lost on people. It is also inconceivable that a well known Saudi journalist, working for the Washington Post and living in exile in the US, could not have been targeted without the express orders from the top.
The Saudis have denied any involvement of the Crown Prince. In fact, initially they denied any knowledge of Khashoggi’s whereabouts. Later in the face of evidence released by the Turkish authorities, with footage of Jamal entering the consulate the Saudis had to finally admit he died inside the consulate.
Perhaps in a bid to shift focus from MBS, the Saudis have begun the trial of the 11 charged with murder of Jamal. The prosecution had asked for death sentence for five of the hired hands. US and Saudi Arabia have been close allies. President Donald Trump, who walked out of the Iran nuclear deal, is keen to isolate Tehran. His views on Iran are in line with the Saudis who see Iran as competition to Sunni dominance of the Muslim world. Trump is close to the Kingdom and his son in law Jared Kushner has developed a rapport with MBS.
Despite the goodwill from the White House, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has outraged American public opinion and lawmakers both Democrats and Republicans no longer see the Crown Prince as a knight in shining armour ready to fight religious extremists. Yet in Asia, none of this matters. India wants investments from Riyadh. So does Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Saudis helped Imran Khan’s new government by offering a loan of six billion to ease the prevailing financial crunch.
There are plans for a ten billion oil refinery and petro chemical complex in the port city of Gwadar, which is at the heart of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. MBS is expected to announce major investments during his visit to Pakistan this weekend. He will be staying at Prime Minister Imran Khan’s home while in Islamabad. Delhi is also hoping for investments from Saudi Arabia.
Expectations are that MBS may announce investments in the National Investment and Infrastructure Fund, meant to help India’s creaking infrastructure. There is also talk of investments in the farm sector, where produce grown by Indian farmers would be directly exported to the Kingdom.
Yet Saudi investments in Maharashtra for a $44 billion refinery project has faced many delays and has frustrated the Saudis, not used to projects being held up because of public protests. Saudi Aramco (the state owned company) and the Abu Dhabi National Oil company had acquired 50 per cent stake in the refinery but strong opposition by mango growers had made it difficult for the government to acquire land and take the project forward. Still MBS sees India as a future growth area and prepared to invest in various projects here.
In the last few years, India’s ties with Saudi Arabia have improved dramatically. Riyadh, which at one time refused to hand over terror suspects, have since 9/11 been much more accommodating. With over three million Indians working in Saudi Arabia, Indian government’s whether BJP or Congress, are keen to take the ties forward. The hitch is trying to balance out India’s relations with Iran. It would have to be a tight-rope walk.
Seema Guha is a senior journalist with expertise in foreign policy and international affairs.