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Crown Prince’s Visit: India Quietly Optimistic Saudi Arabia Will Back It On Pak-Sponsored Terrorism Issue

When New Delhi plays host to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman on his first state visit to India beginning Tuesday, it will be banking on the “transformational” change in bilateral ties in recent years for Riyadh to back it strongly once again on the issue of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism following the Pulwama terror strike.

India feels it has reason to be optimistic as it sees Saudi Arabia has shown what sources said was a “far better understanding of its position on both Pakistan-backed terror groups and the Kashmir issue”. Expectedly, amid heightened tensions between India and its neighbour, New Delhi will be hoping this finds reflection in the joint statement after the two sides hold delegation-level talks on Wednesday.

However, with the Pakistan-Saudi joint statement issued Monday upon the conclusion of the Crown Prince’s visit calling for the “the need for avoiding politicization of UN listing regime” amid India’s renewed efforts to have JeM chief Masood Azhar listed as a global terrorist will have New Delhi concerned.

What will also draw New Delhi’s attention in the joint statement is that it has “praised openness and efforts of Prime Minister Imran Khan for dialogue with India and the opening of the Kartarpur crossing point and the efforts exerted by both sides, stressing that dialogue is the only way to ensure peace and stability in the region to resolve outstanding issues.”

Five MoUs in the areas of investment, tourism, housing and information and broadcasting as well as finalisation of the nitty-gritties to set up a Strategic Partnership Council are on the anvil during the Crown Prince’s visit. India is one of eight strategic partners of Saudi Arabia–Pakistan is not part of this list. But it’s Saudi Arabia’s views on cross-border terrorism that will occupy centre-stage.

Indeed, Pakistan finds itself in the cross-hairs of Iran and Afghanistan too for its support of terror outfits. Iran recently summoned Pakistan’s envoy in Tehran after 27 members of its Revolutionary Guards were killed in a terror strike by members of the Pakistan-backed Jaish-ul-Adl. Meanwhile, Afghanistan has complained to the UN Security Council about Pakistan’s engagement with the Taliban.

What has added a sense of irony to the Crown Prince’s India visit is the fact that he has just concluded a two-day visit to Pakistan which pulled out all the stops to accord him a grand welcome. Fighter jets escorting the Saudi royal’s aircraft as it entered Pakistani air space and Prime Minister Imran Khan personally driving the Crown Prince were part of the hyperbole and hoopla surrounding the visit. In an attempt to make it a standalone visit to India, the Saudi royal flew back yesterday to Riyadh from where he’ll be flying down to New Delhi this evening.

Like the proverbial Santa Claus distributing goodies, MbS, as the Crown Prince is often referred to, opened the purse strings for a cash-strapped Pakistan. The two sides inked eight agreements under which the total Saudi investment in Pakistan is expected to be no less than US $20 billion. This promised investment comes close on the heels of a US $6 billion loan that the Saudis extended to Pakistan that’s been grappling with depleting foreign exchange reserves.

To the glee of the Pakistani leadership, not only did MbS accede to their request for the release of over 2,000 Pakistani prisoners in Saudi jails but also declared, “consider me Pakistan’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia”.

But the Saudi largesse for Pakistan has left New Delhi unfazed. “We don’t want to compare the ties that Saudi Arabia has with Pakistan with those that it has with us. But we must point out that when the Saudis invest in India, they’re investing in a robust economy. They’re not here to bail out India,” said sources while taking an oblique swipe at Pakistan.

They also noted that India has robust, strategic ties with Saudi Arabia that are independent of the relations it has with Pakistan. Noting that the relationship has “radically transformed in the last few years”, sources said the Crown Prince’s visit to Pakistan did not put India on the back foot. “It’s Pakistan who should be worried and feeling insecure not India about growing India-Saudi Arabia ties”, said sources.

As for the Saudi stand on terrorism, T.S. Tirumurti, secretary (economic relations) in the Ministry of External Affairs drew attention to the fact on Monday that the Saudi Kingdom had “strongly condemned and denounced the terrorist attack on Indian security forces in Pulwama.”

Mr Tirumurti further said that India appreciated Saudi Arabia’s cooperation in the areas of security and counter-terrorism and added that the Kingdom had shown greater understanding for India’s terrorism-related concerns. He said that Riyadh had agreed to work with New Delhi in countering this global menace and added that during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2016, a MoU in cooperation for exchange of intelligence on money laundering and terrorism financing was signed between the two sides.

Apart from terror, the focus during MbS’s visit will also be on how to bolster India’s energy security and boost bilateral trade. In 2017-18, bilateral trade was US $27.48 billion making Saudi Arabia India’s fourth largest trading partner. With Saudi Arabia being a key pillar for India’s energy security—17 per cent or more of India’s crude oil and 32 per cent of LPG requirements—bilateral discussions will be held on this sector too.

From India, the Saudi Prince heads for China. He was to have gone to Malaysia and Indonesia too as part of his south Asia-south-east Asia tour. The focus on building closer relations and seeking allies among Asian and southeast Asian nations has come after the Crown Prince, as well as the Saudi Kingdom, found itself being shunned and condemned for the brutal murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year. It’s widely believed that the Crown Prince ordered his killing.