In his discussions in New Delhi on Wednesday, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS, as he is known) expectedly kept his focus on bilateral objectives — investment in infrastructure and petroleum, intelligence-sharing and the rudiments of naval cooperation. It is pure chance that the Pulwama attack came days before the Crown Prince’s arrival in India. This seems to have led to some tweaking of the official statement to factor in this development. On the whole, however, the talks went as they might have if the Pulwama episode hadn’t taken place.
Riyadh subscribes to a set template on terrorism. As such, the joint statement, in its references to terrorism, was an exact copy of the statement issued in 2016 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Saudi Arabia. In his observations to the media in New Delhi, the young prince (who is the real power in his country since King Salman, his father, has pretty much made it plain — domestically and to the entire world — that now on it is MBS who runs the show) did not even mention Pakistan. In the joint statement, Pakistan was referred to but in the context of efforts to be made to create conditions for the normalisation of India-Pakistan relations. The Saudis have no difficulty criticising terrorism and states sponsoring terrorism. While Indians believe this is an oblique way to point fingers at Pakistan, for the Saudis the fingers point at Iran, Riyadh’s deadliest regional foe. Thus, anodyne allusions to terrorism in the joint statement are just right to keep both parties happy. In Islamabad earlier this week, during MBS’ visit, the Saudis made a pointed reference to “not politicising” the UN listing system for terrorists and terrorist organisations. This was read as a rebuke to India which has tried hard to have JeM founder-leader Maulana Masood Azhar designated as a global terrorist, only to be thwarted by China, which has used its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to place a technical hold on India’s efforts. In New Delhi, on the other hand, the joint statement speaks in strong terms about penalising leading terrorists.
This is an example of the practice of expediency diplomacy under MBS’ leadership, the same as when prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was ensnared and killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, apparently under instructions from MBS himself, and Riyadh offered various implausible explanations to get the Crown Prince off the hook.
The thing to remember is that MBS is really on a familiarisation trip — Pakistan, India, China and South Korea being visited in one loop. He was at the recent G-20 summit in Argentina, where he was cold-shouldered by the entire Western leadership (due to the Khashoggi murder) but was greeted warmly by Russian President Vladimir Putin, China’s overlord Xi Jinping, and Mr Modi. Mr Modi has maintained that spirit.