Published on Feb 28 2019
Clearly the deplorable Khashoggi murder is fading from the regional political radar and a more confident Mohammad bin Salman, known by his initials MBS, the 33-year-old crown prince of Saudi Arabia and de facto ruler of the desert kingdom burnished his personal credibility when he concluded a successful and incident-free three-nation tour of southern Asia in Beijing on Friday.
The visit had a complex geopolitical and multi-layered strategic dimension that has the potential to impact the Asian and global framework, which is in a state of uncertainty induced by the post-Trump flux.
Earlier MBS had visited India on Feb. 20 and prior to that Pakistan on Feb. 18 — two South Asian neighbors where a tense situation prevails related to a terror attack on Feb. 14 by a Pakistan-based terror group, Jaish-e-Mohamad (JeM), which killed 41 Indian security personnel. Consequently this Saudi visit acquired much greater visibility in both countries than it would have absent the terror attack and drew attention to the complexity of the challenge of Islamic religious radicalism and related terrorism, as also the selective approach adopted to a global security challenge by a major nation like China.
Saudi Arabia has long been identified with the export of its own version of Islam — the wahabi-salafi Sunni variant and after the revelations of 9/11 (where many of the main perpetrators were of Saudi origin), there has been growing anxiety about how this theological advocacy by Riyadh has impacted Islamic states and Muslim society across the world.
The terror trail was also visible in Iran, where 27 Iranian Revolutionary Guards were killed in a suicide attack on Feb. 13 — an attack that Tehran blamed on Pakistan and three of its citizens.
A preliminary review of the MBS meetings would suggest that every member of this four-nation trapeze — China, India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — had their own objectives to advance and protect, and on balance, the Saudi prince may be deemed the largest beneficiary of this visit. MBS has been under global opprobrium in the wake of the horrific Khashoggi killing, and it may be recalled that in November at the Group of 20 (G20) major developed and emerging economies meeting in Argentina and a December visit to the Maghreb saw the crown prince facing angry public protests over the Khashoggi affair — and in Tunisia, protesters waved saws to symbolize the reported dismemberment of the Saudi dissident journalist.
In welcome contrast for the young prince, he was received like a head of state in all three nations — with the prime ministers of both Pakistan and India breaking protocol and receiving the visitor at the airport. In Beijing, the airport reception was more formal but the fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping received MBS is indicative of the importance attached to the visit.
It is instructive that the Khashoggi killing was barely mentioned during the three-nation tour and is testimony to the clout of the Saudi crown prince. The warm reception accorded to MBS by India, the world’s largest democracy, will have its own salience in the Riyadh calculus.
Both long-term geoeconomic policy initiatives with a visible energy component and the consolidation of geopolitical advantage within the Islamic world can be discerned in the MBS visit. The more instructive linkage is how China comes into play both in geoeconomic and geopolitical domains, even as it seeks to maintain a careful balance in relation to radical Islamic ideology (Saudi sponsored) and the Beijing-Tehran relationship.
In the China leg of the visit, MBS pledged Saudi support for the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), which is the personal flagship project of Xi and also signed an agreement for a $10 billion joint venture with the Chinese entity Norinco to establish a petrochemical complex in the northeastern Chinese city of Panjin.
The Islamic world has been quite disturbed by China’s recent de-radicalization program of its Muslim citizens, though governments (barring Turkey) have been muted in this matter. The numbers in such camps are estimated to touch 1 million and it was expected that this contentious issue would be raised during the MBS visit, given that Saudi Arabia is the custodian of the holy mosque in Mecca and the guardian of the faith.
In a significant statement, Chinese state TV quoted Xi as saying that the crown prince had conveyed to him that Riyadh respected and supported China’s right to protect its own security and take counterterror and deradicalization steps. The quid pro, it may be inferred, is that Beijing would extend support to MBS in the U.N. investigation into the Khashoggi killing — an issue that is also being pursued by the U.S. Congress despite U.S. President Trump’s declared support for the crown prince.
One objective of the MBS visit was to seek bilateral support from each of his hosts in relation to isolating Iran — a nation that Riyadh sees as the “head of the snake”; the cause of all trouble in the Middle East and the source of terror support and funding. The latter charge has been leveled against Saudi Arabia, too, by its detractors, and MBS was evidently seeking to establish the primacy of Riyadh over Tehran in each nation that he visited.
However, a deft balancing strategy was discernible when President Xi met with the visiting Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Feb. 20 — two days prior to the MBS meeting and asserted: “We support Iran in playing a constructive role in maintaining regional peace and stability and are willing to closely communicate and coordinate with Iran on regional issues.”
Earlier India had also signaled that it would maintain its ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia in a manner that would not be prejudicial to "the other" and refused to be drawn into the Riyadh-Tehran sectarian cum geopolitical divide.
Riyadh knows that insisting on a binary either-or choice from its bi-lateral interlocutors is not a viable option — even in the case of a very dependent nation like Pakistan, which has been reluctant to provide its troops for a Saudi-led Arab NATO. Yes, the former Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif does head the 41 nation IMCTC (Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition) and its composition is from Sunni majority nations. The tasking of this nascent organization remains fuzzy and it has declared that its missions would be in line with that of the U.N.
Terrorism was the main focus during the MBS visit to South Asia and the Pulwama attack claimed by the Pakistan-based JeM loomed large. India has been seeking the listing of the JeM and its leader on a U.N. terror list — a move that has been blocked by China at the U.N. Security Council.
In what was initially seen as a major setback to Delhi and its attempt to turn the heat on Pakistan for support to terrorism, the joint Pakistan-Saudi statement in Islamabad had a reference that was more empathetic to the host nation. It noted that both nations “underlined the need for avoiding politicization of U.N. listing regime.” Pakistan saw this as a major victory over its rival. However, this was balanced by MBS during his Delhi visit.
Pakistan has looked to Riyadh for fiscal largesse to meet its precarious financial situation and the pressure Islamabad is under due to the grey listing by the U.N.-mandated FATF (financial action task force) over money laundering related to terror activities.
The Saudi prince did not disappoint his host, and he signed agreements with Pakistan worth $20 billion — though most of it would go toward an oil refinery and infrastructure in the port of Gwadar, which is of high priority to China as part of the BRI. The joint statement highlighted “the potential of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which will contribute to the development and prosperity of the region.”
However some local economists have warned that Pakistan has to be careful, lest it go down the Sri Lanka-Hambantota path, wherein its territories would be mortgaged in perpetuity to an emerging China-Saudi macroeconomic partnership and reducing the host nation to an economic vassal.
That Riyadh was attempting its own balancing act in relation to South Asia was evident in the India leg of the MBS visit. To assuage Indian sensitivities over the Pulwama attack and the Pakistani terror overhang, the prince returned to his country and then proceeded to Delhi so that the visit was seen more as one to India and then China and not a hyphenation with Pakistan.
In Delhi, the overall Saudi investment was projected as a potential $100 billion target with a strong hydro-carbon component, though this may be more aspiration than actual. To assuage Delhi over the terror attack, the India-Saudi joint statement “condemned in the strongest terms, the recent terrorist attack on Indian security forces on 14 February, 2019 in Pulwama in Jammu & Kashmir ” and also “called up on all countries to renounce the use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy.” The allusion to Pakistan was unambiguous — though not explicitly stated.
Pakistan appears to be in a strategic sweet-spot with China, which is seeking to consolidate its partners in the BRI effort and the coalescing of a China-Saudi-Pakistan axis that will seek to dilute the India-Iran strategic connectivity projects such as the Chabahar port is on the cards. However, Pakistan has been accused by its three principal neighbors — India, Iran and Afghanistan of supporting terror groups — and this is a contradiction that may hobble Beijing as it seeks to position itself as an alternative to the United States in the regional flux.
Reports from Islamabad during the MBS visit also dwelt on the Saudi objective of forging a new security framework that would include the UAE and Pakistan to deal with regional challenges — read Iran. The degree to which Pakistan and its army wish to be drawn into a larger strategic conflict that pits the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran, Syria and perhaps Iraq (a Shia majority nation) will have very deep and corrosive implications for the entire southern Asian region.
The southern Asian strategic teapot has been unmistakably stirred by the MBS visit and concerned capitals would benefit from a careful review of the tea leaves as they settle.
Source: The Japan News, 27 February 2019, http://the-japan-news.com/news/article/0005567685