By Syed Zafar Mehdi

MBS tours South Asia, seeks to improve his battered image with petrodollars

February 21, 2019

TEHRAN - Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman is touring South Asia these days to brush up his battered image following the global outcry over diabolical murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The famously infamous ‘butcher of Riyadh’, who has faced blistering criticism over Khashoggi’s cold-blooded murder and the ongoing genocide in Yemen, is doling out billions of petrodollars to keep his friends and foes in good humor.

His first stop on the three-nation tour was understandably Pakistan, the cash-strapped South Asian ally of Riyadh. With a massive entourage and billions of dollars, MBS was given red carpet welcome in Islamabad and driven from the airport by the prime minister himself.

While the Pakistan government left no stone unturned to appease its guest, even conferring him the highest civilian award of the country, people in the streets protested against the visit of the ‘murderer’ and denounced the government for putting the country’s sovereignty at stake in lieu of petrodollars.

News reports said almost 750 hotels rooms and luxury cars had been hooked for the royal visit and about 3,500 pigeons were bought for release to mark the prince’s maiden visit to Pakistan.

During his two-day visit to Pakistan, MBS signed $20 billion in investment deals, according to news reports. The biggest project is $10 billion refinery and oil complex in Gwadar, a port city in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province close to Iran border.

According to analysts, the project will give Saudi firm foothold in the restive Balochistan province of Pakistan and it could be used as a launch pad for efforts to destabilize neighboring Iran.

“The investments would further enhance Saudi influence in Pakistan as well as the kingdom’s foothold in Baluchistan,” James Dorsey of Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies wrote in a blog last week.

Dorsey said the $10 billion project in Gwadar “would strengthen the kingdom’s hold in the strategic province that both MBS and Donald Trump’s hardline national security adviser John Bolton see as a potential launching pad for efforts to destabilise Iran.”

Analysts Tehran Times spoke to agreed that the Saudi investments in Pakistan, and in particular Baluchistan, is part of a grand scheme devised by Riyadh and Washington to aid and abet proxy attacks against Iran through Baloch insurgent groups and also to prevent the strategic port of Chabahar to become a powerful maritime hub.

Just last week, a major attack took place in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province, leading to death of at least 27 members of IRGC. Top military commanders in Iran linked the attack to Saudi sponsorship of insurgent groups in Pakistan.

These developments have expectedly raised concerns in Pakistan’s intelligentsia circles as it is being seen counter-productive to Pakistan’s interests.

“Pakistan, please stop housing these militants and stop using this precious nation to fight other’s wars,” tweeted Ayesha Siddiqa, Pakistan-based military scientist and author, “We will live without MBS’s billions but don’t throw people in this fire.”

In August last year, soon after the new government took over in Islamabad, Siddiqa told Tehran Times that one of the biggest challenges for the government was implementation of laws to stop financing of terror organizations.

“The LeT or Jaish e Muhammad or Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat (ASWJ) all are going about their business. There is money coming from somewhere. These activities are observed by the world. This has to stop,” she said, without mentioning Saudi Arabia.

Taha Siddiqui, a senior Pakistani journalist, in an Al Jazeera column said the Saudis were “using aid packages and investment promises to buy the economically embattled Pakistani government’s loyalty and convince it to turn a blind eye to their destructive actions within Pakistan's borders.”

Meanwhile, during his two-day stay in Pakistan, hashtags like #MurdererBinSalman and #MBSNotWelcome were trending on Twitter and Facebook.

His next stop on the three-nation South Asia tour was India, but he didn’t take the flight directly from Islamabad, rather went through his home turf to make it appear like a ‘standalone visit’.

In India, although government officials accorded him warm reception, the story on the streets of New Delhi and other major cities was starkly different.

In the heart of New Delhi, thousands of people, holding placards and chanting slogans, gathered to say ‘no’ to the ‘murderer of Yemeni children’. The pictures were shared widely on the social media.

According to reports, MBS signed deals worth around $40 billion with the Indian government. But his growing proximity with Pakistan understandably didn’t go well with many Indian observers.

“Saudi crown prince visits Pakistan, throws a $20 billion lifeline, praises Pak for its effort to counter terrorism. Then comes to India to denounce terror attack in Pulwama. And we politely call it diplomacy!” tweeted M K Venu, a senior journalist and co-founder of The Wire.

Indrani Bagchi, a senior journalist with Times of India, said MBS had “screwed India over” even before arriving in New Delhi.

“Modi government should give up the idea that the KSA relationship has been turned. The Saudi-Pakistan joint statement is a slap in the face for India,” she tweeted.

Congress leader Manish Tewari, echoing her words, asked why the Indian government was welcoming Saudi crown prince and rolling out a red carpet for him.

“Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, if you read the joint statement with Pakistan, has essentially supported the non-listing of the Jaish and Masood Azhar as UN entities. So under those circumstances, why are we even receiving him in India when he is so openly batting for Pakistan,” he asked.

Pertinently, a joint statement by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan on Monday said there was a need to avoid “politicization of the UN listing regime” — in reference to India’s efforts to list Masood Azhar as a “global terrorist”.

Masood Azhar is the leader of Jaish e Mohammad (JeM) that carried out the deadly attack in Indian-controlled Kashmir last week, which sparked unprecedented diplomatic retaliation from India.

Minhaz Merchant, a noted author and commentator, said he was “personally repelled by MBS.” “I’ve respectfully declined invitation to attend a banquet in his honour at Rashtrapati Bhavan tomorrow,” he tweeted.

A Twitter user Mohd Atif Siddiqui said #MBSinindia was a “disgrace to India”, calling him “a ruthless monarch creating genocide in Yemen”.

The final stop on his three-nation tour will be China. But, from what we observed in Pakistan and India, the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia driven by petrodollars does not seem workable. And the intelligent minds in both the countries have already disapproved his wooing tactics.

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