Shunned by most of his traditional Western partners after critic Jamal Khashoggi's murder in Istanbul, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is turning to Asia. Saudi-Pakistan ties are deeply-rooted in religion and economic aid from the kingdom.

A man rides past a billboard displaying a portrait of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, ahead of the prince's arrival, in Lahore on February 16, 2019.
A man rides past a billboard displaying a portrait of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, ahead of the prince's arrival, in Lahore on February 16, 2019. (AFP)

Saudi Arabia's powerful crown prince arrives in Pakistan on Sunday, the start of an Asian tour during which he will seek lucrative contracts and demonstrate he still has allies five months after the Khashoggi affair.

Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as "MBS", is expected to land in the capital Islamabad and stay in Pakistan until Monday.

His trip 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.

After Pakistan, MBS will travel to India, 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.

Two short stops initially scheduled for Sunday and Monday in Indonesia and Malaysia were postponed on Saturday without explanation.

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 has profoundly tarnished the image of the kingdom, especially that of the crown prince.

But for analysts, the Asia tour — the largest outing on the international scene for the crown prince 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.

'Not a pariah' 

"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 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."

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," Dorsey said.

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.

Saudi Arabia is not the only Gulf state to pivot east, she added -- for all of them, it is a "logical shift".

Meeting the Taliban?

As for Pakistan, where MBS will begin his tour, it hopes its old ally 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 Imran Khan has already visited Saudi Arabia twice since coming to power last summer.

Pakistan is shutting down its airspace, has declared Monday a holiday in Islamabad and has stepped up security in Islamabad for the crown prince, who is set to become the first guest to stay at the Prime Minister's House. Pakistan's new populist premier, Imran Khan, has refused to use the residence in a bid to save taxpayers' money.

Pakistani hopes for further investment opportunities from Saudi Arabia were dealt a blow on Saturday when the government announced that the Pak-Saudi Business Conference had been "postponed".

Pakistani officials have already flagged up that Saudi Arabia will announce eight investment agreements, including a $10 billion refinery and petrochemicals complex in the coastal city of Gwadar, where China is building a port.

The MBS visit, however, risks being overshadowed by escalating tensions between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan. 

The crown prince's visit to Islamabad will also apparently coincide with possible new talks between the Taliban and the United States on Afghanistan.

The militants announced the discussions would be held in the Pakistani capital on Monday, adding they would also meet Khan. But the US said it has not been invited and Pakistan has not confirmed talks are being held that day.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are both involved in a months-long push led by Washington aimed at ending the conflict in Afghanistan.

It was not immediately clear if MBS would participate in any further discussions on the topic Monday.

Source: Reuters