Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrived in New Delhi on Tuesday, with his business mission under threat of being overshadowed by soaring tensions between India and Pakistan.
The crown prince, who wants to persuade the world’s fastest growing major economy to consume more Saudi oil, was greeted at the airport by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who gave his traditional bear hug for honored guests.
The prince arrived from a two-day stay in Pakistan as it clashed with its giant neighbor over responsibility for a suicide attack in Kashmir last Thursday that left at least 40 members of Indian security forces dead.
The attack was claimed by Pakistan-based Islamist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and has sparked calls in India for a firm response.
The latest showdown between the nuclear-armed neighbors, which is causing mounting international concern, is expected to figure prominently in Prince Mohammed’s talks with Modi on Wednesday.
“Our objective is to try to de-escalate tensions between the two countries, neighboring countries, and to see if there is a path forward to resolving those differences peacefully,” Saudi minister of state Adel al-Jubeir said in Islamabad on Monday.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan offered Tuesday to investigate the attack if India provided proof of its involvement — but said his country would retaliate if attacked.
India rebuffed Khan’s comments and called in turn for “credible and visible action” to rein in militants.
Washington threw its weight behind India Tuesday, pressing Pakistan to punish those behind the Kashmir attack.
“We have been in close communication with the government of India to express not only our condolences but our strong support for India as it confronts this terrorism,” deputy US State Department spokesman Robert Palladino told reporters.
“We urge Pakistan to fully cooperate with the investigation into the attack and to punish anyone responsible.”
Before the attack, the agenda for the crown prince’s visit had been dominated by oil and other key investment decisions.
Saudi oil rivalry with Iran
Saudi Arabia currently supplies about 20 percent of India’s crude oil and wants to definitively push aside arch-rival Iran as a source.
Iran at one stage last year overtook Saudi Arabia among India’s suppliers but US sanctions since have severely hit the Islamic Republic’s oil business.
Modi has also wooed Saudi investment in recent years for flagship infrastructure programs.
“I think even in the backdrop of this attack, the economic ties — which are beneficial to both the countries — will remain the focus of the meetings,” Kabir Taneja, associate fellow with Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank, told AFP.
“India and Saudi Arabia know what they want from each other: India will be looking for a leverage on oil pricing while Saudi Arabia, which is trying to diversify its economy, is looking at access to rising India’s market,” he added.
Taneja said India would aim to use these closer economic ties to push for Saudi Arabia’s “unconditional support” regarding Pakistan.
The crown prince is on a three-country Asian tour as the kingdom seeks to recover its reputation after last year’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Prince Mohammed was treated to a colorful welcome, including Punjabi drumming, at the airport with Modi before the two leaders sped off in a convoy.
The crown prince and the prime minister will lead bilateral talks Wednesday, before they are due to issue a statement and announce agreements.
Prince Mohammed is to leave India late Wednesday and is expected to spend two days in China.
Analysts have said the tour is part of a pivot to rising Asia as a growing oil market and a retort to the West where the crown prince has faced harsh criticism over the Khashoggi affair.