ISLAMABAD (REUTERS) – Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Sunday (Feb 17) kicked off his tour of South Asia and China with a high-profile visit to Pakistan, but the trip risks being overshadowed by escalating tensions between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan.
The visit comes days after a suicide bomber killed 44 Indian paramilitary police in the disputed Kashmir region. New Delhi has accused Pakistan of having a hand in the bombing and vowed to punish Islamabad, which denies involvement.
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.
As part of a grandiose welcome for the Saudi delegation, Pakistan also sent fighter jets to guide the incoming plane of Prince Mohammed, who is set to sign investment agreements for more than US$10 billion (S$13.57 billion).
He had also planned to visit Indonesia and Malaysia during the tour, but those trips have been postponed, according to Malaysian and Indonesian officials.
No reasons were given for the postponements or alternative dates for the tour. The crown prince will, however, visit India.
“This visit, God willing, will start a new chapter in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia’s relations,” Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told state-run PTV channel. “We’re going to start a strategic economic partnership.”
The tour is seen as a attempt by the crown prince to rebuild his reputation after the murder of Saudi critic and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, analysts say.
Many in the West blamed Prince Mohammed for the killing, which triggered the kingdom’s biggest political crisis for a generation. He has denied being involved.
Cash-strapped and in need of friends, Pakistan is welcoming the crown prince with open arms for a visit during which he is expected to sign investment agreements for a US$10 billion refinery and petrochemicals complex in the coastal city of Gwadar, where China is building a port.
Saudi Arabia has in recent months helped keep Pakistan’s economy afloat by propping up its rapidly dwindling foreign exchange reserves with a US$6 billion loan, giving Islamabad breathing room as it negotiates a bailout with the International Monetary Fund.
Analysts say the crown prince’s trip is being treated by Islamabad as the biggest state visit since Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015, soon after Beijing announced plans to invest tens of billions of dollars on infrastructure in Pakistan as part of China’s global Belt and Road initiative.
The visit marks a deepening in ties between allies whose relationship has in the past centred on oil-rich Saudi Arabia backing Pakistan’s economy during difficult periods, and in return Pakistan’s powerful army lending support to Saudi Arabia and its royal family.
As the guardians of most holy sites in the birthplace of Islam, the Saudi royal family carries vast religious clout in Pakistan, a staunchly conservative and mainly Muslim nation of 208 million people.
“What is happening in this relationship is a renewal of Pakistan’s commitment to help protect the royal family and the order as it exists in Saudi Arabia,” said Mr Mosharraf Zaidi, Senior Fellow at Tabadlab, a Pakistani think tank focused on global and local public policy.
“On the flip side, there is reassurance that Saudi Arabia will not only continue to serve as a strategic friend who will help shore up Pakistan’s finances when needed, but it’s also going to become a participant in the wider investment in Pakistan.”
On Saturday, Pakistani leader Khan told the Saudi Gazette newspaper that his country would defend Saudi Arabia in the event of attack.
“We have always said if the Holy Cities of Islam are threatened, Pakistan would go all out to defend the Holy Cities,” Mr Khan was quoted as saying.
Prince Mohammed is set to become the first guest to stay at the Prime Minister’s House.
Mr Khan, a populist new premier, has refused to use the residence in a bid to save taxpayers’ money. But the crown prince’s arrival comes amid a vow by India to isolate Pakistan internationally following the deadliest attack in Kashmir in decades.
New Delhi is demanding Islamabad act against the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militant group, which it says has the backing of the Pakistani state, over the bombing. Islamabad denies playing a role and has called for an investigation.
Prince Mohammed was also set to meet representatives of the Afghan Taliban militant group to discuss peace negotiations to end the 17-year civil war in Afghanistan, Pakistani government and militant sources said.
But that was unlikely after the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the group’s planned meetings with Mr Khan and US officials in Islamabad were called off.