This Week in Asia

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman created quite the buzz this week with his whirlwind weeklong Asian tour, starting in Pakistan on Sunday before moving to India and wrapping it up with a two-day stop in China that ended on Friday.

Many headlines have been written about the lucrative deals that he and his entourage dangled before Asian governments keen on strengthening economic ties with Riyadh. But to focus too hard on these would be to miss the bigger picture: the Saudi prince's desire to get his Vision 2030 economic diversification initiative on track, and pursue a strategy that has been pioneered by Dubai - investing in ports and other infrastructure in the Indian Ocean, for which India and Pakistan, as partners, make a natural fit.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shares a smile with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters

One reason Vision 2030 has been stuck in first gear, of course, is the fallout from the Jamal Khashoggi affair, which saw the well-known journalist and critic of the Saudi government killed inside the country's Istanbul consulate - prompting international outrage, especially from the West.

That is why East and South Asia are now the objects of Riyadh's desire. Western investors have backed away from the table for fear of being called out for supporting a murderous regime. In the Middle East, rivals such as Iran, Qatar and Turkey have continued to trumpet the issue for their own ends. In the rest of Asia, meanwhile, there has been mostly silence - resulting in Saudi largesse.

Much of Asia has kept quiet about the death of prominent Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi. Photo: EPA

The crown prince's visits to Pakistan and India, however, threatened to be overshadowed by militant attacks in Indian-held Kashmir. The attacks were claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammad, a separatist group New Delhi says is actively supported by Islamabad. The attacks, coming in the thick of election season in India, have uncorked a chorus of calls from within the country for retribution, and tensions between the bitter rivals are higher than they have been since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which were carried out by another group of Pakistan-based Islamist militants.

Smoke billows from the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai during 2008's attacks. Photo: AFP

Enter the crown prince. Thanks to the attacks, his trip to South Asia had another agenda foisted upon it. Given Saudi Arabia's fractious history, a representative of that country may appear an unlikely peacemaker. But the kingdom has form when it comes to brokering peace deals between old enemies. Just last year, the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea met in Jeddah to sign a deal to set aside their differences, with King Salman acting as referee.

One swallow does not a summer make. Yet, there is reason to believe that Saudi Arabia is taking its new-found desire to act as conciliator seriously - simply because it is driven not out of altruism, but self-interest.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, centre right, is welcomed by Eritrea's President Isaias Afewerki in July. Photo: AP

The peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea, bitter Red Sea rivals, came about at the behest of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - the Saudis' closest regional ally, which also happens to operate a military base in the strategically located Eritrean port of Assab. To make that venture commercially viable, it has to be open for trade with Ethiopia, Africa's second largest market. And to convince the Ethiopians to get on board, the UAE talked Saudi Arabia into using its political clout - hence the Jeddah deal was signed.

Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed with US President Donald Trump. Photo: EPA

It is not the first time that Saudi Arabia has followed the UAE's lead. Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed visited Pakistan just a month before bin Salman did, and the groundwork for the US$40 billion deal signed between Riyadh and Delhi was laid by the Emirati foreign minister in June 2018. Saudi Arabia has also previously jointly invested in ports, infrastructure and industrial development in the Indian Ocean with Abu Dhabi - a key plank of the Vision 2030 strategy.

The Saudis and Emiratis are not the only players in this game, however. Over the past decade, India, China, Turkey, and Russia have all bought ports and built industries in the region.

In fact, the scramble for ports has even seen Saudi-backed DP World, which is based in Dubai, get pushed out of a concession to operate a port in Djibouti, at the behest of China.

A general view of the Pakistani port of Gwadar in 2017. Photo: Reuters

This experience convinced Saudi Arabia that it should see other investors not as competitors, but collaborators. The Saudis have invested US$12 billion in the Pakistani port city of Gwadar, and if India is not on board then its potential is limited. It is for this reason that Riyadh sees the peacemaker role as an essential part of its strategy: for a rising tide to lift all boats, Pakistan and India need to at least tolerate each other in the same the way that Eritrea and Ethiopia have seemingly learned to do.

Pakistan's English-language press has sought to remind readers of the country's complex relationship with Saudi Arabia. Photo: AFP

As explained above, this push to expand economic cooperation with Asia is part of a Saudi move to diversify its alliances in the wake of the Khashoggi scandal. Whether it can get India and Pakistan on board by playing the peacemaker is still open to debate. Swept along by a wave of nationalism in the wake of the attacks in Pulwama that left dozens of Central Reserve Police Force personnel dead, Indians are demanding action. The question appears to be not if New Delhi will respond, but how.

In Pakistan, suspicion of Saudi Arabia remains, despite the no holds barred welcome for the crown prince. Several English-language newspapers have sought to remind their readers about the Saudi funding of jihadis during the cold war that led to the proliferation of small arms and militant madrassas in the country, and the rise of religious hardliners in the military and intelligence agencies.

China is where bin Salman is likely to find his most receptive audience. Photo: Reuters

China is where bin Salman is likely to find his most receptive audience, so it is fitting that he ended his Asian tour there. Beijing has stayed silent on the Khashoggi affair and the Saudis, for their part, have not mentioned the mass internment of Muslims in Xinjiang.

China has steadily expanded economic ties with Saudi Arabia beyond oil, into areas like technology. It is also looking for new areas to move into as its domestic economy slows, and based on a shared desire to look past uncomfortable home truths and focus purely on economic cooperation, it could be just the place to get the real reason for the crown prince's Asian tour - Vision 2030 - on the road.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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