Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, arrives for a ceremonial reception at the presidential palace in New Delhi, India. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Has a Chance to Play Statesman

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- So far, so utterly predictable. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s grand tour of Asia has proceeded along the lines expected for a Saudi potentate: red-carpet welcomes in Islamabad and New Delhi, a carriage ride with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, a bear hug from India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and promises of billions of dollars in investment.

For the prince, the warm reception in the Indian subcontinent may be a respite from the chill wind blowing from Washington—where, in the latest manifestation of the ill will generated by the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the U.S. Congress is investigating Saudi efforts to acquire nuclear technology.

But, for all the pageantry, little suggests a new “pivot east” by the kingdom’s de facto ruler, who is better known by his initials MBS. In fact, there’s nothing new here at all: Prince Mohammed’s father, King Salman, made a similar trip in 2017, as did his uncle, King Abdullah, in 2006. Saudi Arabia has had a “look east” policy for many years, in recognition of the status that Asia’s thirsty economies enjoy as the biggest consumers of the kingdom’s principal product.

But MBS wants a bigger role on the world stage—to be a statesman in international affairs, rather than a mere salesman of hydrocarbons. In his own backyard, he has led Arab coalitions into war in Yemen and a boycott of Qatar. This trip is a test of his leadership credentials beyond the Arabian Peninsula.

The subcontinent provided an opportunity to display some diplomatic skills: a suicide attack in India by a Pakistani terrorist group on the eve of MBS’s arrival ratcheted up the hostility between the two countries. The Saudi foreign minister made polite noises about trying “to de-escalate tensions.”

MBS could have gone beyond this bromide, using the leverage he has with both countries: Pakistan’s economy depends heavily on Saudi largesse, and India is keen on Saudi investment. He might, for instance, have offered to host Khan and Modi for talks in Riyadh. But he offered just vague observations about terrorism being a “common concern,” and an equally unspecific promise to share more intelligence with India.

Plainly, the prince is not prepared to play peacemaker.

Beijing, his tour’s final stop, offers a chance to demonstrate his leadership of the wider Islamic world. China’s brutal suppression of Muslim ethnic Uighurs—up to a million have reportedly been detained in “re-education camps”—has been met with a shameful silence from most Muslim leaders. Turkey recently broke ranks with the other Muslim countries by calling for the camps to be closed, but no major leader has dared to beard Beijing in its own den—not even the outspoken President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

MBS has both the legitimacy and the leverage to do so. The Saudi royal family professes to take very seriously its role as custodians of Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, and by extension, of the well-being of Muslims everywhere. Saudi Arabia is also a major supplier of oil to China, and President Xi Jinping regards Riyadh as the linchpin of his foreign-policy and trade ambitions in the Middle East.

A diplomatic, but firm expression of solidarity with the Uighurs from MBS might miff the Chinese, but they will get over it. In the Muslim world, the prince would gain enormous goodwill—a commodity Saudi Arabia has been lacking since his war on Yemen. It would also give pause to his critics in the West.

If all MBS wants from his Asia tour is to get away from the K-word for a few days, he will find the ghost of the murdered journalist waiting for him back in Riyadh. If he wants to be regarded as a statesman rather than a salesman, an opportunity awaits him in China.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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