Crown prince leads Saudis’ Asia pivot amid regional tensions
LONDON - Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz has advanced Riyadh’s Asia pivot campaign during a tour defined by many geopolitical and economic considerations.
Crown Prince Mohammed’s late-February tour, which included stops in Pakistan, India and China, coincided with mounting regional tensions with a flurry of threats between Pakistan and both India and Iran.
India vowed to retaliate against Pakistan for the February 14 terror attack in Kashmir during which 41 Indian paramilitary members were killed.
Tensions were also high between Tehran and Islamabad. Just before the crown prince’s visit, a suicide attack in Zahedan, in south-eastern Iran, killed at least 27 members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Jaish al-Adl, a jihadist group that operates along the Iranian-Pakistani border, claimed responsibility and Iran threatened Pakistan with retaliation unless it acted against the group.
While it said it would try to de-escalate tensions between Pakistan and India, Saudi Arabia could only dismiss Iranian accusations, which seemed to reflect Tehran’s concerns that the visit was nudging Riyadh and Islamabad closer together.
Iran “dialled up the rhetoric” once it became “concerned that Pakistan’s position may be shifting,” wrote Middle East expert James Dorsey.
Besides trying to pressure Islamabad away from Riyadh, Tehran reached out to China with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visiting Beijing on the eve of the Saudi crown prince’s visit.
During his China stop, Crown Prince Mohammed signed a $10 billion deal with Chinese authorities for a petrochemical complex, which was announced February 22 following his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Both countries also pledged to work together on China’s multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 programme.
There was more than economics in the Asia tour. Riyadh agreed to shore up cooperation with Pakistan and India on counterterrorism matters.
Beyond the individual visits to Islamabad, Delhi and Beijing, many experts saw a Saudi pivot to Asia in the crown prince’s tour.
“Is the crown prince’s tour symbolic of Saudi Arabia’s pivot to the East? Yes,” Najah al-Otaibi, a senior analyst at the pro-Saudi think-tank Arabia Foundation, told Agence France-Presse.
In his tour, Crown Prince Mohammed was enhancing his country’s diversification of its international relations in a way that matches the growing clout of Asian powers and helps the kingdom weather the strains in ties with Western allies since the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October in Istanbul.
“The Saudi leadership recognises that it’s integral to diversify its relationships,” Mohammed Turki al-Sudairi, a Hong Kong-based researcher for the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies, told the New York Times. “The message is that there are other options out there.”
The diversification drive has economic dividends as Saudi Arabia redefines its economic capabilities as part of its Vision 2030 reform plan.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan signed eight commercial agreements, mainly concerning energy, sports and mining, worth some $20 billion. The crown prince called it “a first phase.”
While in India, Saudi officials signed a memorandum of understanding pertaining to it joining the International Solar Alliance, which it views as necessary to lessen its domestic energy consumption.
The two countries, which initiated a $44 billion oil refinery project in Maharashtra last April, reportedly discussed $100 billion worth of investments during Crown Prince Mohammed’s stop in New Delhi.
Saudi Aramco CEO Amin Nasser, speaking February 20 at the Saudi-India Forum in New Delhi, said economic power was shifting from West to East.
Nasser’s assessment was illustrated during the final stop of Crown Prince Mohammed’s Asia trip. China is the kingdom’s biggest trading partner and an economic and military superpower.
“This was a ‘win friends and influence people’ type of tour,” James Crabtree, a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore told Bloomberg TV. “This trip has been a big success. It has put him [Crown Prince Mohammed] on the front foot again.”
Crabtree said the US-Saudi relationship remains the critical relationship for Riyadh “but you want to have options and different relationships and you want to show your critics in America and Europe that you can go elsewhere if you need to.”