On Sunday, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia signed a slew of investment agreements worth $20 billion, providing India’s cash-strapped neighbour and its teetering economy some much-needed relief. Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who travelled to Islamabad for a two-day visit, oversaw the signing of MoUs for bilateral cooperation in a number of fields.
“Saudi investment in Pakistan will grow every month, every year in bigger numbers, and it will be beneficial for both countries,” the Crown Prince said. “Pakistan is going to be a very, very important country in the future, and we want to be sure we are part of that.”
Music to Imran’s ears for sure.
The two leaders also released a joint statement, which raises questions about how India is going to go about its ties with the oil-rich kingdom that has now given its full backing to its contentious neighbour.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan reiterated their commitment to continue combating extremism and terrorism and expressed their deep appreciation for the achievements and sacrifices made by the two sides in the war against terrorism… They also underlined the need for avoiding politicisation of the UN’s listing regime,” they said in the joint statement.
This does raise a red flag for India as “politicisation of the UN’s listing regime” is an apparent jibe at India’s efforts to have the United Nations designate Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist — a move China has been opposing with its veto power at Pakistan’s behest.
Not only did Saudi back Pakistan’s barb, but it also extended its approval for Islamabad’s so-called “achievements” in “combating extremism”. In light of the attack on a CRPF convoy in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama district in India — an ambush orchestrated by the Jem that killed 42 troops — the statement is a major blow to India-Saudi ties.
The jibes didn’t end there. The joint statement also pointed out the that “dialogue is the only way to ensure peace and stability in the region to resolve outstanding issues”, a reference to New Delhi’s refusal to hold talks with Islamabad unless it cracks down on the terrorism embedded in its soil. “Terror and talks cannot go hand in hand” has been India’s firm stand.
The Ministry of External Affairs of India has, unsurprisingly, not responded to this statement, given that it was released a day before the Crown Prince is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan in New Delhi on Tuesday. It would have made for one awkward meeting.
New Delhi already had reservations over Prince Salman visiting India from Pakistan, given the heightened tensions between the countries because of the terror attack in Pulwama. And now, even the fact that Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir said that Riyadh will try to “de-escalate” tensions between the neighbours is unlikely to sit well with India when you club his remarks with the joint statement, which more or less is an acknowledgement of Saudi Arabia having Pakistan’s back in the international community.
This puts India in a tricky situation. On its agenda for Prince Salman’s visit was raising the issue of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, which will now need careful manoeuvering.
Even before Saudi Arabia and Pakistan released the joint statement, Ministry of External Affairs Secretary (Economic Relations) TS Tirumurti, who handles ties with the Kingdom, said the country has shown “greater understanding” of India’s terrorism-related concerns. Appreciating Pakistan for its “achievements” in “combating terrorism” belies this supposed understanding of India’s concerns, indicating that New Delhi is going to have a tough time convincing Riyadh of Islamabad’s orchestrations harming India.
Saudi Arabia holding Pakistan in a warm embrace also puts a dampner on India’s efforts to diplomatically isolate the country till it owns up to the terrorists it harbours and makes efforts to combat the menace. Infusing the country’s exchequer with funds and deferred oil payments will not only provide its economy with a much-needed boost, but, according to popular opinion, will also allow Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence — widely believed to be waging a proxy war with India by backing anti-India elements — to continue to fund activities detrimental to India.
Saudi Arabia’s sops for Pakistan also comes days after India withdrew the ‘Most Favoured Nation’ status Pakistan enjoyed and hiked customs duty on goods from the country to 200 percent.
During Prince Salman’s visit to India on Tuesday, India aims to improve defence ties with the nation. It is also likely to try to improve business opportunities in Saudi Arabia for India’s corporate sector and ink a favourable oil deal. India offering to mediate efforts to improve diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran will be another important area to cover during the talks, but all of this will be shrouded by the uncertainty of the Kingdom’s stand on Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and whether it really understands India’s concerns on the subject.
Furthermore, amid the worldwide condemnation of the terror attack in Pulwama, the silence of the Pakistan prime minister was loud and clear. Although the foreign office had rejected the blame on Pakistan as a “knee-jerk reaction”, Imran has yet to even acknowledge the death of 42 CRPF troops in South Kashmir, forgetting that he has to keep up an appearance in the international platform of being the one who extended a hand of friendship towards India to resolve the Kashmir dispute — by offering to hold talks and agreeing to build the Kartarpur Corridor.
Even Saudi Arabia has been quick to denounce the attack on the paramilitary force. In fact, Prince Salman even flew back to Riyadh from Islamabad on Monday as India had reservations about him visiting New Delhi from Pakistan. Despite the gesture, acknowledging Pakistan’s supposed efforts to crack down on terrorism will hang over his visit to India.
“We are confident that this visit by the Saudi Crown Prince will open a new chapter in the India-Saudi bilateral relationship,” Tirumurti had said before Pakistan and Saudi Arabia released their joint statement.
Things might just change a bit after the joint statement got released.