Saudi Arabia's powerful prince tours Asia — with purpose

Saudi Arabia’s effective leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, this week is visiting Asia — and what a trip it is turning out to be.

On Sunday, MbS, as he is known, arrived in Islamabad, Pakistan, for a two-day visit. For unexplained reasons, he arrived a day late. And he did leave Monday, but he was actually in Pakistan less than 24 hours.

ADVERTISEMENT

His late arrival meant that his itinerary was changed at the last moment. He is still due to go to India and China, but visits to Malaysia and Indonesia have been cancelled. (Saudi officials prefer to use the word “postponed.”)

His arrival in Pakistan, and intended next stop in India, was overshadowed by a terrorist attack in Indian Kashmir, a Muslim majority area, in which 44 Indian paramilitaries died. Pakistan displayed injured innocence to India’s accusations of Pakistani involvement, but New Delhi is considering a military response. In the meantime, India increased tariffs on Pakistani goods by 200 percent and Islamabad on Monday withdrew its ambassador “for consultations.” We are not talking a nuclear exchange between the the two South Asian giants — at least, not yet.

The trip to Pakistan was, in publicity terms, a lovefest between MbS and Prime Minister Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-politician elected last year. The Saudi prince, whose authority in the kingdom apparently is total, declared he feels “at home in Pakistan.” Khan, whose rule is circumscribed by his powerful military, was suitably grateful for the reported $20 billion in Saudi financial aid and contracts. Additionally, according to the Pakistani media, Riyadh picked up the tab for the whole trip, which included eight containers of MbS’s personal belongings for his overnight stay and 3,500 pigeons procured from local markets to be released on his arrival.

It is notable that MbS had a side meeting with Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, head of the Pakistani army, who was accompanied by Gen. Asim Munir, the director-general of the feared Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the agency topping many people’s list as likely responsible for the Kashmir attack. In the past, Saudi Arabia has taken more than a passing interest in Pakistan’s nuclear weapon program, so it may be ominous that the official statement issued at the end of the trip said: “Both sides noted with satisfaction their strong defense and security ties, and agreed to further enhance cooperation in this field to advance shared objectives.”

When announced last week, MbS’s trip was depicted as a “pivot to Asia,” both commercially and because the countries there are less likely than the United States and Europe to ask pesky questions about Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist murdered on Oct. 2 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Both India and China are economic giants. While Pakistan wanted financial support, New Delhi and Beijing want greater commercial links — oiled, if that is the word, by Saudi energy supplies.

But India will be disturbed by any enhancement in the Riyadh-Islamabad relationship, especially if the kingdom is not appearing to be any restraint on nefarious activities in Kashmir or Afghanistan. As it is, New Delhi insisted that MbS could not fly directly from Pakistan, forcing the Saudi leader to go back to Riyadh for a night. Iran, no less, also complained last week of Pakistani involvement in an attack on revolutionary guards near their mutual border.

The visit to China arguably should be a stand-alone item. Beijing’s political support for Pakistan stretches back decades and is notably less fickle than Washington’s. Commercially, also, there are strong links. Pakistan is notionally part of the Chinese “One Belt, One Road” vision, though their land border is high in an extension of the Himalayan mountains. The road climbs to over 15,000 feet, so the long sea voyage remains the more viable.

But China is the end of the week. There is a lot to get through before then.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.