While Indian discussions pertaining to Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) visit last week have exclusively focused on his balancing act vis-a-vis India and Pakistan, as it came soon after the Pulwama attack and New Delhi’s hardening of attitude towards Islamabad, it is equally pertinent to underline the larger geostrategic significance of this visit. Against the backdrop of Saudi Arabia’s deteriorating relations with the US and European nations, MBS was trying to signal his intent to align his country more closely with Asian powers, including China and India, as well as making a point that he may not be as isolated as many would like to believe. This is a strategic pivot for Saudi foreign policy which is a marker for MBS detractors that he remains a potent enough global figure able to assert his influence in key centres of global power.
With Pakistan, of course, an old relationship was resurrected with a new push. This has been a partnership which has revolved around Riyadh, sustaining an inefficient Pakistani economic infrastructure in return for Pakistani army providing security to Saudi Arabia and its royal family. As Imran Khan recently underlined, “We have always said if the Holy Cities of Islam are threatened, Pakistan would go all out to defend the Holy Cities.” And Saudi Arabia’s $6-billion loan has been critical for Pakistan in recent months to allow it to negotiate with the IMF. During his visit, MBS signed deals worth $10 billion for a refinery and petrochemical complex at Gwadar, which lies at the heart of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and is central to the broader Sino-Pak engagement on the Belt and Road Initiative. This project will not only give Saudi firm foothold in the restive Baluchistan province of Pakistan, from where Iran can be potentially targeted but it will also allow Riyadh to build its partnership with China. It is not surprising, therefore, that Beijing was effusive in its praise for Saudi Arabia’s entry into the CPEC, a project that has been facing challenges from multiple fronts in recent months.
With a bilateral trade figure of around $63.3 billion, China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner. During Saudi Arabia’s King Salman’s visit to China in 2017, the two sides had signed deals worth around $65 billion with a focus on energy and technology. MBS’ visit was laden with symbolism that he remains the key actor in the Kingdom despite growing concerns in the West about his suitability to the role and that China is now the new priority for Riyadh. As part of China’s BRI, Riyadh had proposed the development of the economic zone along the Red Sea coast in 2017, which is expected to receive around $500 billion in investments from Riyadh upon completion. Saudi Arabia agreed to include the Chinese language as a curriculum at all stages of education in schools and universities across the Kingdom.
Most significant aspect of the visit, however, was MBS’ defence of China on the use of concentration camps for Muslims, arguing that China “has the right to carry out anti-terrorism and de-extremisation work for its national security”. Earlier this month, the Turkish government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had called the detentions “a great shame for humanity” and decried the alleged “torture and political brainwashing” in the camps. Beijing, meanwhile, has also been doing its own balancing between the two regional rivals in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran, as MBS visit came soon after that of Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran. Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi praised Zarif’s speech at the Munich Security Conference, remarking “I saw on television how you defended the rights of Iran loud and clear at the Munich Security Conference. I think an audience of hundreds of millions of Chinese also watched what you said and you are a famous person now.” China’s growing importance in the geopolitical calculus of both Saudi Arabia and Iran is reflected in their eloquent silence on the issue of Muslims in Xinjiang.
In India, too, the focus for MBS was on economic and trade matters with the announcement of up to $100 billion worth of investments over the next few years. Aramco and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) are investing $44 billion to set up the Ratnagiri oil refinery in Maharashtra and SABIC is on the verge of acquiring a major share in a petrochemicals plant in India. The two nations are also looking to work on solar power and satellite technology. While around 20 per cent of Indian oil imports are of Saudi origin, there are also around 2.7 million expatriates who live and work in Saudi Arabia. But it was the joint statement that became the highlight of MBS’ India visit as New Delhi managed to secure the support of Riyadh on the issue of terrorism.
This tour of MBS is an important one as it goes beyond the bilateral ties and at a time when anti-Saudi sentiment is at an all-time high in Washington, it has sent an important signal that Riyadh is intent on diversifying its partners. While the Trump Administration remains keen on Riyadh, the wider political establishment in Washington is looking at MBS warily in the wake of the gruesome killing of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last year as well as the Yemen situation. So while the Trump Administration is reportedly looking to sell nuclear technology to the Saudis, the US Senate is making sure that its would be the deciding voice on this matter. Tensions on the Yemen situation have been evident for quite some time now.
So the Saudi pivot to Asia is an idea whose time has indeed come. What role India will have in this evolving dynamic still remains to be seen however.
The writer is Professor of International Relations, Department of Defence Studies, King’s College London