As Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in Saudi Arabia on Saturday for a two-day visit, during which he will stay at the royal family’s guest palace, all eyes will be on his meetings with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s son, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who many diplomats and Saudis feel could be the future King.
Across Riyadh, the 30-year-old Prince’s pictures are on hoardings alongside his father, and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef.
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Prince Mohammad bin Salman — in diplomatic circles, he is referred to as MBS — is not just the deputy Crown Prince, but also the Defence Minister and the Chief Economic Planner of the Saudi Kingdom. Ever since he was given these crucial positions last year — after his father became King following his elder brother’s death in January 2015 — he has been driving the agenda on behalf of the country, diplomatic sources told The Indian Express.
Under his leadership, while the war against Houthis in neighbouring Yemen has evoked criticism, his economic agenda — including his announcement on Friday afternoon about selling shares in the country’s biggest oil company and raising $2 trillion — has won him accolades. The crackdown against dissidents and activists, with as many as 76 executions this year and more than 150 last year, are also being seen as his brainchild.
With reports of the Saudi King being unwell — some in Riyadh believe he suffers from dementia — Prince Mohammad, who is second-in-line for the throne, will be wooed by the Indian leadership, sources said.
When Chinese President Xi Jinping went to Saudi Arabia, he too had a separate meeting with him. The Deputy Crown Prince also met Pakistan’s Army chief Raheel Sharif during his visit to Pakistan.
US President Barack Obama, who hosted him at Camp David last year, had said, “This is the first time we had a chance to work closely with the Deputy Crown Prince, and I think he struck us as extremely knowledgeable, very smart, I think wise beyond his years.”
At the same time, the German intelligence agency BND in December 2015 took the unusual step of publishing a one-and-a-half page memo that expressed concerns over an increasingly “impulsive policy of intervention”. Referring to the Yemen war, they said MBS was destabilising the Middle East with his dangerous and inexperienced politics.
Indian officials, however, want to downplay their meetings, and said Modi will meet prominent members of the royal family, as per protocol. New Delhi does not want to get drawn into the palace politics since there is an intense rivalry between Nayef, who is the Interior Minister, and his much younger cousin, sources said.
But the Saudis indicated that the agenda being driven by MBS will be on top of their bilateral conversation.
Abdul Karim, a professor of political science at Riyadh’s diplomatic institute who is considered close to the royal family, told The Indian Express, “Saudi Arabia is facing two major challenges: economy and terrorism. Both countries will come together on these two areas.”
He said the information-sharing agreement, signed in 2006 during King Abdullah’s visit to India, is expected to be renewed. “This visit will also open a new era of military relationship,” he said, hinting at the new deputy Crown Prince’s role.
Faheem H Al Hamid, the Jeddah-based executive editor of Okaz newspaper group, said, “This will be the first PM-level visit from a BJP government. Since BJP’s history with Muslims has not been very encouraging, it will be important to see what he has to say about Muslim minorities in India. BJP’s support for the Arab cause, vis-a-vis Israel, will also be gauged during this visit.”
“Saudi Arabia will also want India to take a position on Iran’s role in the sectarian violence in the region. Riyadh wants India to be part of the security coalition. Will Modi come out and support the war in Yemen? These are issues which will be taken up and watched closely,” he added.
Apart from official meetings, Modi will also meet top CEOs of major Saudi companies, visit the Masmak fort, interact with the Indian community and visit Tata Consultancy centre, which has trained over 1,000 Saudi women. He will also meet Indian workers at a project being implemented by L&T in Dahiat Namar in Riyadh.
“His meetings will encompass people from all walks of life, from the royalty to the Indian diaspora. It is going to be an intensive programme,” an Indian diplomat said.