The visit by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was extraordinary on many counts. Planned more than a month ago, it was meant to be a message from MbS to the Western world that despite the Jamal Khashoggi episode, there are still some countries that need Saudi Arabia, including the biggest democracy, and are ready to welcome him. As it turned out, his swing through South Asia, coinciding with the aftermath of the deadly Jaish e Mohammad attack in Pulwama, thrust him and his country front and centre into the heightened tensions between India and Pakistan. But Saudi Arabia is no spring chicken to the geopolitics of the region. That is why the prince, who has more or less assumed charge of the Islamic kingdom from his ailing father, managed to pull off a successful balancing act between the two neighbours, giving each the sense that it had trumped the other, at least in the
Nowhere was the balancing act more evident than in the joint statements issued in Islamabad and New Delhi. Reading the two statements together, especially the paragraphs on the issues of maximum contention that have resurfaced after the Kashmir attack, the feeling is hard to escape that the two cancel each other out. In Pakistan, the statement asked for avoiding the “politicisation” of the UNSC 1267 designation regime; in India, it “underlined the importance of comprehensive sanctioning of terrorists and their organisations by the UN”. In Pakistan, the statement made no mention of the attack in Kashmir; in India, it said that the Crown Prince condemned the attack in the “strongest possible words”. In Pakistan, MbS praised Prime Minister Imran Khan for his efforts at dialogue, and in India, he praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his “personal initiatives to have friendly ties with Pakistan”. The statement mentioned “the need for creation of conditions necessary for the resumption of comprehensive dialogue between India and Pakistan”. Ultimately, tightrope walking is what nations do. India too does this between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two sworn enemies, as does China, MbS’s next destination.
Relations between India and Saudi Arabia have more depth and breadth than a Pakistan prism provides, and this was evident in the range of other matters that find mention in the joint statement, chiefly investment and energy co-operation. The two sides appear to have put on hold the $44-billion refinery complex in Maharashtra after BJP agreed to the Shiv Sena demand for its relocation. But there is no getting away from the reality that Saudi money has fuelled militancy in the region. And Saudi games in the region, including in Afghanistan, are contributing to making it unsafe.