Reuters Islamabad, Pakistan
Feb 17, 2019, 09.21 PM
Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman was greeted with a booming 21-gun salute in Pakistan Sunday, as the powerful royal scion kicked off an Asia tour months after being tarnished by his alleged links to the murder of a journalist.
The crown prince, widely known as "MBS", launched his diplomatic trip in the capital Islamabad, where he was set to sign a raft of investment deals believed to be worth billions that Pakistan hopes will provide welcome relief to its teetering economy.
MBS was warmly embraced by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and powerful army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa as he stepped onto a red carpet flanked by an honour guard at a military airbase near Islamabad.
The two-day visit to Pakistan comes amid high tensions in the region: India and Saudi Arabia's arch-rival Iran -- both bordering Pakistan -- have accused Islamabad of backing militant groups which have carried out bloody suicide attacks on their soil in recent days.
Hours ahead of the crown prince's arrival, Pakistan dismissed Delhi's accusations, calling them "well-rehearsed tactics from (the) Indian playbook after such incidents in the past".
MBS will travel to India after his Pakistan visit, where he will meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan.
He is expected to finish the trip with a visit to China on Thursday and Friday.
The Asia trip comes five months after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a fierce critic of MBS, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul ignited a diplomatic crisis.
Riyadh initially denied the murder, then gave several conflicting accounts of Khashoggi's death, and now claims he was killed in an unauthorised operation.
Turkey said Friday it has not yet revealed all the information it has uncovered in the extraordinary case, which launched a global wave of revulsion and profoundly tarnished the crown prince's reputation.
'Not a pariah'
But for analysts, the Asia tour -- the largest outing on the international scene for the Saudi royal since his participation in the G20 summit in Argentina last December -- is a timely demonstration to the West that he still has friends in rising Asia.
He "wants to demonstrate that he is not an international pariah", said James M. Dorsey, a researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
It is a matter of proving that he still has "international access and he can function... as the most senior representative of Saudi Arabia beyond the king".
Li Guofu, director of Middle East studies at the China Institute of International Studies, a government-affiliated think tank, noted that the Khashoggi case continues to cause indignation in Western countries, so visiting them would have been "inconvenient".
"Not travelling to the West does not mean that he cannot come to the East. Saudi Arabia is also making strategic adjustments, and Asia is the new main direction of Saudi diplomacy," he said.
Asian countries, he added, "have an important special characteristic -- that is, we don't interfere in the internal affairs of other countries".
The prince's trip also includes an important economic component.
"China is the largest buyer of Saudi crude, and Saudi Arabia's other largest clients are all Asian: India, Japan, South Korea," said Dorsey.
"Asia is a source of inward investment into Gulf energy and infrastructure investment; and the future growth of the global economy will be in Asia," said Karen Young, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.
Taliban 'in Islamabad'
Pakistan is facing a serious balance of payments crisis and hopes its longtime ally Saudi Arabia will throw the struggling economy a lifeline, specifically in the form of a $10 billion investment in a refinery and oil complex in the southwest of the county.
Prime Minister Khan has already visited Saudi Arabia twice since coming to power last summer.
The crown prince's visit to Islamabad comes as the Taliban appeared to postpone a round of talks with the US set to be held in Pakistan this week, according to the group's spokesman.
Neither Washington or Pakistan confirmed the latest round of talks the Taliban earlier claimed were set to take place in Islamabad.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are both involved in a months-long push led by Washington aimed at ending the conflict in Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Imran Khan and Pakistan's army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa welcomed the crown prince on the red carpet of a military airport in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, near the capital Islamabad.