Mohammed bin Salman's Foray Into the South Asian Quagmire

The 'winner' in these South Asian encounters was most probably the crown prince.

Three separate but interlocking factors provided the framework and content for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s first visits to Islamabad and New Delhi, where he was honoured as a visiting head of state.

First, the crown prince has been tainted by his association with the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October last year. Though “rogue” Saudi officials have been blamed and are facing prosecution at home, it is widely accepted that, given the dynamics of Saudi politics, such a major event could not have taken place without the full knowledge and consent of the prince.

The entire Saudi public relations apparatus is being utilised to distance him from this deed. US President Donald Trump, prioritising defence and commercial deals with the kingdom and its backing for his anti-Iran agenda, has consistently supported his ally.

However, large sections of the US Congress have not been impressed and are calling for further investigations. The UN Human Rights Council has got into the act by sending a senior investigator to Istanbul, from where she has announced a lack of cooperation from the kingdom and suspicions about the prince’s role.

A demonstrator holds a poster with a picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 25, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal/Files

The crown prince’s agenda

The prince and his officials have sought to push the murder onto the back-burner by highlighting the opportunities for lucrative business that the kingdom offers. Though the government-sponsored investment conference in Riyadh in October – just a few days after the murder – received a lukewarm response, with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan as its principal guest, the Saudi delegation at Davos in January was warmly received. There, the kingdom proudly announced projects valued at over $ 500 billion, with some on immediate offer.

The crown prince’s decision to visit three major Asian countries – Pakistan, India and China – with which his country has substantial political and economic ties, is in line with this effort to move on from Khashoggi and focus on issues that ‘really matter’ – commercial and security interests.

Also Read: Why It Was Wrong to Expect the Saudi Prince to Take India’s Cue on Pakistan

The second factor affecting the visit was political: besides cleansing his image, the crown prince is also anxious to obtain a better understanding of his stand-off with Iran. He and his government view Iran as the main source of regional instability, the principal backer of terrorism and extremist elements and the source of the burgeoning sectarian divide in the region; in short, as an ‘existential threat’.

However, the third factor proved to be crucial in determining the tenor of the visit: the terror attack in Pulwama, which took place just before the prince reached Islamabad and cast an overarching shadow on the visit.

For each country, it now became important, largely for reasons of domestic politics, that the visiting prince show understanding and support for its own narrative and, hopefully, a criticism – however mild – of the position of the other side.

Thus, the prince, keen to refurbish his personal image and standing, now found himself in the quagmire of India-Pakistan disputes: through the period he spent in the two capitals (February 17-20), his every sentence, phrase and body language were examined by the media of the two countries, which were seeking evidence of weakness or selling out on part of their respective governments, or indications of bias from the prince.

Never have two joint statements been subjected to such close scrutiny as those the crown prince concluded in the two capitals. The comments being made give the impression that the joint statements are not so much reflective of high-level diplomatic engagements and thus documents that need to be consensually-approved by two sovereign states, but rather press releases of the respective governments trumpeting extraordinary diplomatic triumph.

With India just two months away from general elections, the joint statements have become the plaything of domestic political contentions as well: the Congress has demanded to know why Pakistan has not been named in the statement with India, while other critics want clarification on why the Jaish-e-Mohammed – the self-confessed perpetrator of the Pulwama atrocity – has not been indicted. Hardly anyone has paid attention to the substance of bilateral ties with Saudi Arabia.

The two statements are analysed below.

The Saudi-Pakistan joint statement

The Islamabad statement is a slapdash affair, exhibiting more a desire to score points over India than to further bilateral ties with Saudi Arabia. Thus, in the joint statement, the crown prince applauded the efforts of Prime Minister Imran Khan “for dialogue with India” and then piously said that “dialogue is the only to ensure peace and stability in the region to resolve outstanding issues”. While both Indian and Pakistani observers saw in this a rebuke to India for refusing dialogue with Pakistan, what has not been noted is that this could equally apply to Saudi Arabia itself with respect to its ties with Iran!

The other reference to which Indian writers paid a lot of attention was the assertion that the two leaders “underlined the need for avoiding politicisation of UN listing regime”. This is a clear reference to the Indian effort, consistently foiled by Chinese opposition, to get Masood Azhar included in the UN list of terrorists.

For the rest, the document says very little. Though defence is perhaps the principal feature of the bilateral relationship, it was dismissed with just one sentence, with the leaders expressing “satisfaction (with) their strong defence and security ties” and “to further enhance cooperation in this field to advance shared objectives”. These “shared objectives” are not elaborated.

Also Read: With Crown Prince’s Visits, Saudi Arabia’s Balancing Act in South Asia Continues

Similarly, on Afghanistan – where both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are deeply involved, though their agenda might not be congruent – the statement only says that they agree on “the importance of the political settlement and promoting peace and stability” in the country.

But then the statement adds that Saudi Arabia, besides appreciating Pakistan’s generous hosting of Afghan refugees, also appreciates “other initiatives by Pakistan in the Afghan context”. What are these “other initiatives”? Keeping the Taliban united? Backing Taliban violence? Anxiety to make the Taliban the sole power in Kabul? Derailing the peace process? Delaying elections? These important questions are not answered.

Not surprisingly, the statement makes much of the Islamic factor: Pakistan applauds the “leadership and positive role” of the kingdom in addressing the issues facing the “Islamic Ummah”, while Saudi Arabia merely lauds Pakistan’s “important positions” in the Islamic world and its “efforts for regional peace and security”.

Here, while Pakistan accepts the kingdom’s “leadership” of the Muslim world and is satisfied with its own “important position”, there is no clarity about what it is doing for regional peace and security in the Islamic context. Backing extremist elements? Using jihad as state policy? Providing a sanctuary for trans-national jihadi groups – Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Haqqani Network and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan?

The statement concludes with two very curious assertions by the two leaders: one, they call for “dialogue, respect and understanding among followers of different faiths to promote peace and inter-faith harmony”. One can imagine the officials chuckling among themselves as these words were inscribed, for neither country has even a nodding acquaintance with this sentiment, nor has either of them felt the need to practice it at home.

Two, the leaders “condemned the atrocities and human rights violations committed against Muslims around the world”. The principal atrocities against Muslims have been committed by authoritarian Muslim states on their citizens and through extremist groups sponsored by them; Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are lead role-players in this regard. Again, does this condemnation of atrocities also include Jamal Khashoggi?

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (R) greets Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on his arrival at Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Nur Khan Base in Rawalpindi, Pakistan February 17, 2019. Credit: Press Information Department (PID)/Handout via Reuters

The Indo-Saudi joint statement

The statement in Delhi was issued very late in the day, just an hour before the crown prince left for Beijing. According to press reports, it may have been delayed due to the Indian insistence on naming Pakistan in the document; however, the specific context for this “naming” is not clear.

Pakistan is mentioned in para 34 of the statement, which makes three points: one, it speaks of the importance of “regional stability and good neighbouring (sic; should read “neighbourly”) relations”. Two, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is appreciated for his “personal initiatives to have friendly relations with Pakistan”; this is clearly meant to balance the earlier Saudi praise for Imran Khan’s efforts for dialogue with India.

Thirdly, it says that “both sides” agree on the need for “creation of conditions” for the resumption of “comprehensive dialogue” between the two countries – this happily reflects the Indian view on dialogue with Pakistan. The Saudis also pleased India on the UN list matter by agreeing on the “importance of comprehensive sanctioning of terrorists and their organisations by the UN”.

Thus, the kingdom has succeeded in satisfying both nations with the right words – that’s more than enough for them, since neither seems to want real change in bilateral relations!

For the rest, the joint statement has several positive features for India: in line with earlier joint statements, it is detailed and comprehensive and clearly takes the relationship forward in specific areas of mutual interest. It focuses on giving substance to the burgeoning “strategic partnership” between the two countries.

Quite rightly, it pays considerable attention to matters of energy, trade and investment, with the Saudi side enthusiastically accepting that there are opportunities in India “worth $100 billion”. This has been deliberately set above the previous marker for investments of $70 billion set by the UAE just two years ago, of which not much has been heard since.  But such figures capture headlines and build camaraderie; the hard grind of translating these figures into specific projects takes long years as government officials and businesses pursue concrete proposals.

The process of bilateral dialogue has also been institutionalised: a Strategic Partnership Council has been set up at apex level to monitor progress, while a ‘comprehensive security dialogue’ will take place at the level of national security advisers to deal with counter-terrorism.

However, with regard to regional security cooperation, the Indian statement is as coy as the Pakistani document. There is a casual reference to the leaders’ discussion on “the security situation in West Asia and Middle East” (it is not clear why both terms for the same geographical space have been used), though this should have been the principal concern of the two leaders.

Similarly, while the Pakistani statement had a brief and confusing reference to Afghanistan, the Indian document does not refer to Afghanistan at all. Given the significant behind-the-scenes role Saudi Arabia has in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table and the high stakes India has in the outcome of the peace process, this would have occupied the two leaders for a large part of the hours they spent together.

The reason not to go public with the content of their discussion could be that the negotiations the Taliban are involved in at various platforms (Doha and Moscow) are at a critical stage, and there is considerable uncertainty over how things will pan out. The positive development is that India and the kingdom are talking to each other for the first time on this sensitive subject and, in time, can work closely to promote the unity and stability of Afghanistan within the framework of a democratic order.

While in Pakistan the two leaders applauded each other’s role relating to Islamic matters, in Delhi, while Modi praised the crown prince for promoting “moderation and openness” in the kingdom, the crown prince appreciated the Indian model of “ethos of inclusiveness, pluralism and tolerance”. Ahem.

Iran was the elephant in the room during both visits but is not mentioned in either statement. Pakistan’s reference to the kingdom’s “leadership and positive role” in the Muslim world would hardly be liked in Tehran, nor would the latter appreciate the “strong defence and security ties” between Pakistan and the kingdom to promote “regional peace and security”.

In the Indian statement, the allusions to Iran are clearer. In para 23, Saudi Arabia describes itself as “the world’s most reliable supplier of oil and gas” and in the next para, affirms that it will meet India’s growing needs “and substitute for any shortages that may arise as a result of any disruptions from other sources” – a clear reference to sanctions on Iran.

Again, in para 36, the two countries “renounce the use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy”. Here, while India has Pakistan in mind, Saudi Arabia is looking at Iran. This is made clear in the very next sentence, where the two leaders call for the denial of access to “missiles and drones” to those who commit terrorist acts – a reference to Iran supplying missiles to the Houthis in Yemen.


The ‘winner’ in these South Asian encounters was most probably Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The two major South Asian countries have clearly conveyed to him that the Khashoggi murder, however heinous it might have been, is at the end of the day a domestic matter and will not impinge on their ties with the kingdom.

However, having put away the murder as a material factor in bilateral ties, the countries will continue to assess the continued strength and credibility of the crown prince at home and his ability to steer his country towards moderation and reform. Given the fierce opposition his actions have generated, this cannot be taken for granted.

In India, perceptions relating to the visit were greatly influenced by the forthcoming elections. Modi has based his electoral appeal on projecting a muscular foreign policy, particularly in responding to terror emanating from Pakistan. In this, he has contrasted himself from the feeble approach of his predecessors. Given the plethora of attacks from Pakistan and the inability of the government to either end these assaults or give an effective response, there is considerable pressure on the prime minister to be the tough guy he has projected himself to be.

Thus, the visit of the crown prince was an important occasion for him to project the backing of a major Islamic power. Given the prince’s own vulnerabilities, Modi largely succeeded in this effort, though Pulwama still remains to be responded to.

The scenario relating to Pakistan is quite different. It was important for Riyadh to shore up Pakistani military backing against Iran. Thus, the crown prince’s most important discussions were not with Imran Khan but with the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. For this, the ground had already been prepared by the visit to Pakistan of former army chief General Raheel Sharif, who is based in Riyadh as the head of the so-called ‘Sunni NATO’ – a joint force made up of military detachments from Sunni countries.

Though this force exists largely on paper, the kingdom is anxious to have the assurance that Pakistani forces will be available in the event of a conflict with Iran. This assurance would have been given by Bajwa, perhaps in the confidence that such a cataclysmic conflict will not actually take place.

In any case, there is no way Pakistan can move too far from Iran and confront Iran on sectarian basis. This will be a sure recipe for domestic sectarian contentions. Thus, though coming months will often see meetings between the Saudi and Pakistani armed forces, there will be little change on the ground.

Sadly, no power – not even the Saudi crown prince – is able to dilute the Pakistani use of extremist elements as an instrument of state policy. This situation is unique because, while in other instances jihadi forces tend to be dissidents that are hostile to state order, in the case of Pakistan, they are actively backed by state actors.

Though this affiliation with jihad has damaged the Pakistani state and debilitated its economic and social order, it has sustained Indo-Pakistan hostility and given a privileged status to the armed forces over civilian leaders. With so much of the world order in flux, this is not likely to change in coming years.

Talmiz Ahmad, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, and is Consultation Editor, The Wire.