Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Pakistan on February 17-18 and India on February 19-20, 2019. His visit, coming barely days after the terrorist attack on security forces in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir, was undertaken in a tense atmosphere and heightened security concerns in the subcontinent. Saudi Arabia well understands the existing political and security dynamics between India and Pakistan. Therefore, during his visit, the Crown Prince was particularly cautious so as not to look like being supportive one country over the other. Further, at a time when Saudi Arabia faces immense security and geopolitical challenges in its own neighbourhood, it was only prudent for him to carefully tread a middle path between India and Pakistan.
During the Saudi Crown Prince’s visit to Pakistan, the two countries signed seven agreements including in the key fields of petrochemicals, power generation and renewable energy. He committed a total investment of around US$ 20 billion to Pakistan in multiple projects. Saudi Arabia has often come to Pakistan’s rescue whenever the latter faced acute economic challenges. Most recently, in October 2018, it announced a US$ 6 billion bailout package for Pakistan. Both countries agreed to further strengthen their defence and security ties and to cooperate on combating terrorism and extremism. Though Pakistan is a known state sponsor of terrorism, Saudi Arabia has never expressed its disapproval of Pakistan providing safe haven to terrorist organisations. Riyadh has overlooked Pakistan’s support for terrorist groups and, in return, has got continued support and unquestioned loyalty from Islamabad.
In New Delhi, Mohammed bin Salman reiterated his support for India in countering terrorism and extremism, which, he stated, are issues of common concern for both India and Saudi Arabia. He suggested a further strengthening of ties in counter-terrorism, maritime and cyber security. He also announced a Saudi investment of over US$ 100 billion in several key areas such as energy, refining, petrochemicals, education and health. The announcement to align the ‘Saudi Vision 2030’ and Indian initiatives such as ‘Make in India’ would certainly provide a boost to bilateral trade and investment. In recent years, India-Saudi relationship has been on an upswing covering economic, energy, security and strategic aspects. This visit adds further impetus to the already vibrant India-Saudi bilateral relationship.
From the Saudi perspective, both India and Pakistan are important countries for their own reasons. For Riyadh, Pakistan is a key ally that is politically and ideologically subservient and economically dependent. Pakistan is also a reliable security partner for Saudi Arabia that has openly committed itself to the Kingdom’s security. Prime Minister Imran Khan has gone to the extent of stating that if the Holy places were to be attacked, Pakistan will come forward to defend the Kingdom. Further, Riyadh also wishes to keep Pakistan closer on its side to deflect Iranian influence in Pakistan. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia looks at India as a stable democracy, with a growing economy and a market for its energy, which is moreover well positioned to play a constructive role beyond the Indian subcontinent. Saudis recognise India’s growing profile as an emerging global power and a reliable partner to engage with in future.
Consequently, during his visit to India and Pakistan, Mohammed bin Salman tried to strike a delicate balance between the two countries. While with Pakistan he established the ‘Saudi-Pakistan Supreme Coordination Council’ to be jointly chaired by himself and the Pakistani Prime Minister, with India he agreed to constitute a ‘Comprehensive Security Dialogue’ and to form a ‘Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism’. Saudi Arabia is reportedly investing in a joint petroleum refinery in Gwadar, even as India and Saudi Arabia have agreed to establish a US$ 44 billion joint venture in a petroleum refinery. On the critical issue of terrorism also Saudi Arabia tried to maintain a balance between India and Pakistan. The Crown Prince agreed with Pakistan the importance of not politicising the UN listing regime. But he also agreed to join hands with India to counter terror and share intelligence. Saudi Arabia condemned the terror attacks on India, but it did not condemn the Pakistani involvement in the cross border terrorism targeting India. It issued a statement condemning the Pulwama terror attack, but refused to accept that Pakistan was in any way involved in it.
Besides, in its own neighbourhood, Saudi Arabia faces a number of regional security challenges. Saudi military operations in Yemen have drawn a lot of criticism. The Iranian challenge is also growing. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is going through a most difficult phase post the boycott of Qatar. The Qatar-Turkey-Iran partnership is emerging as a major geopolitical challenge for Saudi Arabia. The Khashoggi affair led to a lot of international pressure on the Kingdom and Mohammed bin Salman in particular for his alleged involvement in the killing. In the light of the above, it is natural that the Kingdom would try to keep as many countries as possible on its side. Thus, Mohammed bin Salman, during his visit to the subcontinent, was mindful not to give the impression of wanting to strengthen ties with one country at the expense of the other.
Underlining the importance of both countries for the Kingdom and conscious of the history of the India-Pakistan relationship, Saudi Arabia has always maintained that Pakistan is a ‘brother’ and India a ‘friend’. Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the two countries has reaffirmed this Saudi policy. Keeping important Saudi national interests in the region in mind, the Crown Prince adopted a calibrated approach towards India and Pakistan by walking the tightrope with extreme caution at a time when tensions are running high both in West Asia and South Asia.