A president, a crown prince, and a tale of two summits

Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Reuters
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Li Huaxin, the Chinese ambassador to Saudi Arabia, toured the Great Wall of China in Beijing on Feb. 21.
  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 3 Min. )

Even as the Trump-Kim summit gets under way in Hanoi, a different Asian summit trip, just days earlier, may prove equally portentous.

That trip was made by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Shunned by the West for his role in the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he was warmly welcomed in Pakistan, India, and China. He sealed agreements worth around $20 billion in Pakistan and discussed Saudi investments amounting to five times that in India.

Why We Wrote This

All eyes are on the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi. But another summit last week underscores how quickly assumptions about global influence are shifting – and changing the political calculus of many countries.

It’s evidence of a fundamental shift in world diplomacy: US-European bonds are weakening, and rival powers like Russia and China are increasingly assertive. And that is changing the political calculus for other countries.

The United States still matters, a lot. But Prince Mohammed has found it increasingly difficult to draw Western investment interest. In China, however, there were signs of a deepening partnership. That included China’s readiness to avoid mention of Khashoggi’s murder, reciprocated by the prince's silence on the detention of some million Uyghur Muslims in western China.  Prince Mohammed went home with a deal for more Saudi oil exports and higher expectations for investment. The message: the West’s cold shoulder no long carries the impact it did even a few years ago.

All eyes have been on a high-profile summit in Asia – between US President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. But a different Asian summit trip, just days earlier, could prove every bit as telling a barometer of the current instability, and uncertain future, of world diplomacy.

The man involved in that Asia visit, including stops in Pakistan, India, and finally China, was Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often known as MBS. And his meetings had a message: that being politically ostracized by the West – in MBS’s case, for the brutal murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other human rights abuses – no longer carries the impact it might have had even a few years ago.

It’s the latest sign of a fundamental shift in the world order: a weakening of the post-World War II bond between the US and Western Europe, accompanied by a new assertiveness on the part of rival powers like Russia and most significantly China. The Saudi leader’s excursion into Asia offered a close-up view of how that is altering the political calculus for other countries.

Why We Wrote This

All eyes are on the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi. But another summit last week underscores how quickly assumptions about global influence are shifting – and changing the political calculus of many countries.

America still matters, a lot. That’s not going to change overnight, if only because it has the world’s largest economy and most powerful military. The Saudis still export oil to the United States, and rely on the US for much of their advanced weaponry and training. Geopolitically, the Trump administration remains a key ally, sharing Saudi Arabia’s laser-like focus on its main regional foe, Iran.

Mr. Trump, almost alone among US politicians, has also deliberately soft-pedaled MBS’s role in Khashoggi’s killing as well as other rights abuses, whether in the war in neighboring Yemen or the imprisonment of women political activists.

At the Group of 20 summit of leading rich and developing nations in Buenos Aires late last year, however, shortly after Khashoggi was murdered, Trump felt the need to skirt a public embrace of MBS. And, crucially, in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder, MBS has found it harder to draw Western investment interest in “Vision 2030” – the centerpiece of his expansive and expensive ambitions for a future Saudi Arabia less reliant on oil.

That’s where his recent five-day swing through Asia comes in. Far from being shunned, he was feted at every stop. He sealed economic agreements worth around $20 billion in Pakistan and discussed a range of possible Saudi investments amounting to five times that amount in India.

Still, as potential geopolitical partners, the Pakistanis and Indians have a clear limitation. Both nuclear-armed countries have been rivals for seven decades, since the retreat of the British empire from Asia. Their rivalry suddenly reignited earlier this month, with a cross-border attack in Indian Kashmir that killed 40 paramilitary police and was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish e-Mohammad terror group. India hit back Tuesday, striking what it said was a training camp for the group.

MBS’s key stop, however, was his two-day visit to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping, which very much had the look of a deepening partnership that serves both leaders’ interests. At the G20 summit, Mr. Xi did meet the Saudi crown prince. A statement afterward not only omitted any mention of Khashoggi, it spoke of China’s “strategic, long-term” interest in closer ties and explicitly cited a readiness to back MBS’s vision for “economic diversification.”

On his Asia trip, the crown prince returned the favor. As custodian of the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia has long positioned itself as a guardian of Muslim interests around the world. But MBS pointedly omitted any public criticism of the widening network of concentration camps in western China, where an estimated million Uyghur Muslims are being held. He was quoted by Chinese television as echoing Beijing’s official line, citing China’s “right to carry out anti-terrorism and de-extremization work for its national security.”

On a nuts-and-bolts level, MBS’s visit not only sealed arrangements for more Saudi oil exports to China. He made a pitch – to an openly sympathetic Chinese audience – for major Chinese involvement in Vision 2030.

While in Pakistan, he also announced plans for new Saudi investment in the port of Gwadar, a cog in China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure project to expand its trade routes and political footprint through Asia and into Africa. Interestingly, the Saudis’ own interest in Gwadar includes concern over the major, Indian-funded expansion of the port of Chabahar – just over the border in Iran.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to A president, a crown prince, and a tale of two summits
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today