It’s hard to think of anywhere else in the world right now where Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would get such a warm welcome.
In Pakistan, the kingdom’s de facto leader was met by a 21-gun salute and fighter jet escort, and gifted a golden submachine gun. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke protocol by greeting the 33-year-old prince on the tarmac, and giving him a giant bear hug.
In China, he was able to pose for a photograph with President Xi Jinping, one of the most powerful leaders in the world.
That reception would be unthinkable in the US or Europe, where bin Salman’s reputation has been severely damaged following the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year. Bin Salman has denied any connection to the killing.
In the wake of that scandal, the young prince badly needed some good PR – and so he headed East.
It was a smart move.
China is already Saudi Arabia’s biggest trading partner, and across Asia this week political, religious and ideological differences proved no barrier to doing business. No leader mentioned Khashoggi.
That was a transactional approach that Saudi was happy to reciprocate.
In Beijing, the crown prince of a kingdom containing the holiest site in Islam did not challenge China on allegations of Muslim persecution in the northwestern province of Xinjiang. In India, he highlighted $100 billion of potential deals with the country, where attacks on Muslim minorities have become a major issue ahead of this year’s national election.
Over the course of a week in three countries bin Salman inked billions in trade deals.
A short, calculated trip
When bin Salman’s father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, visited Asia two years ago, he took a very different route through the region, stopping off at Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Japan and China.
His son has made a much shorter trip, skipping strong trade allies such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore.
Jonathan Fulton, a professor in China-Middle East Relations at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, believes bin Salman’s succinct itinerary was a careful calculation of where his charm offensive would be best received.
“Pakistan has historically been really important to Saudi Arabia,” Fulton says, “especially since Imran Khan became Prime Minister.”
After Khashoggi’s death last year, Western business leaders in their droves boycotted an investment conference in Saudi Arabia, nicknamed “Davos in the Desert.” Khan was one of the few state leaders who attended, and was willing to have his picture taken with bin Salman. Soon after, Saudi Arabia gave Pakistan a $6 billion bail out to ease its economic woes, cementing the friendship.
India and China, meanwhile, are long-standing partners who have the added benefit of being able to provide Saudi with much-needed foreign investment and technological expertise, as it faces a chill from the West.
“The relationship between India and Saudi Arabia is in our DNA. Indians (have been) part of building Saudi Arabia for 70 years,” the Crown Prince said in New Delhi last week. Nearly three million Indians live in Saudi Arabia, making it an important labor source.
China is also Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, last year importing $46 billion from the kingdom, which it relies heavily on for oil.
The two countries also have “a lot of synergy,” says Fulton. Xi is trying to push his Belt and Road initiative, under which huge amounts of Chinese trade will pass through the Red Sea that borders Saudi Arabia on its way to Europe. The Crown Prince wants to promote his own Vision 2030 economic plan, which would benefit from Chinese investment and technology transfer.
“Bin Salman has appeared very magnanimous throughout the whole trip,” says Fulton. “For folks watching back home, who have heard nothing but negative stories for a while, here are countries that are important to Saudi receiving him well. So on that note, it’s been a success.”
Bin Salman launched his bold Vision 2030 plan aimed at weaning his country off its economic dependence on oil in 2016.
But more than two years later, it is still the backbone of the Saudi economy – as shown by the deals he struck in Asia this week.
Anoush Ehteshami, a professor of international relations at the University of Durham, says: “Saudi Arabia’s lifeline remains energy,” adding that soft oil prices have sent the kingdom’s economy into “relative decline.”
In Pakistan, the Crown Prince signed tentative agreements for $20 billion of investment, which included a $10 billion agreement to establish an oil refinery in the southwestern coastal city of Gwadar. That port is a key part of the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, further intertwining the interests of Saudi and China.
On his next stop, the Crown Prince said he saw $100 billion of investment opportunities over the next two years in India, and signed agreements on energy, as well as tourism, housing and broadcasting.
The deals were good for building diplomatic relationships, but didn’t represent investment in Saudi Arabia.
“There’s a lot of hunger for the reform bin Salman is talking about (at home),” says Fulton. “But at the same time, 2030 requires foreign direct investment big time.”
“When you lock up your country’s billionaires in the Ritz Carlton it doesn’t reassure foreign capital that their investment will be safe,” he adds, referring to the detention of high profile Saudi royals at the five-star hotel in Riyadh in an alleged corruption sweep in 2017.
With bin Salman’s government also currently funding the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen’s civil war, Ehteshami says “this is not a country making it work financially.”
Bin Salman did not receive the same hero’s greeting in Beijing that he did in Pakistan or India. Furthermore, just days before the Crown Prince’s arrival, Beijing announced it wanted to build “strategic trust” with Saudi’s arch rival Iran.
But China was a much more important stop for the Crown Prince, says Fulton. It was in Beijing he was looking for investment.
On Friday, after meeting with Xi, the Crown Prince signed a series of agreements in politics, shipping, energy and, crucially, the two nations agreed to further enmesh their Belt and Road and Vision 2030 projects.
Bin Salman also signed a $10 billion refinery and petrochemical project deal.
Both leaders refrained form criticizing the other.
Xi remained quiet on the Khashoggi issue, and bin Salman avoided pushing Beijing on its treatment of its Muslim minorities. Instead, he supported China’s anti-terrorism efforts.
“We respect and support China’s rights to take counter-terrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security. We stand ready to strengthen cooperation with China,” bin Salman said, according to state news outlet Global Times.
“Saudi has its own problem with extreme Islamist groups, so as long as China keeps saying its Xinjiang (camps are a) response to splittism and terrorism … that gives them an out,” says Fulton.
Bin Salman’s work, however, paled in comparison to the $65 billion in trade agreements his father signed with Beijing two years ago.
But for Ehteshami of Durham University the photo-ops and fanfare bin Salman received alone mean the visit to Asia was a win for Saudi, regardless of how much investment he brought home.
“Its signal to the West was, You may shun me, but I’m not alone.”