Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrived in India on Tuesday after visiting Pakistan, which New Delhi blames for a suicide bombing last week that killed at least 40 Indian soldiers in disputed Kashmir.
The crown prince was welcomed at the airport by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who embraced him in a characteristic bear hug.
Prince Mohammed is expected to make an effort to defuse tensions between India and Pakistan as New Delhi weighs its response to last Thursday’s attack.
Tensions between the countries have soared since the attack, in which a militant rammed an explosive-laden van into a paramilitary bus in Kashmir. It was the worst attack against Indian government forces in Kashmir’s history. India has threatened a “jaw-breaking response.”
Ties between India and Saudi Arabia, where millions of Indians are employed as migrant workers, have strengthened since Modi visited Riyadh in 2016 for the signing of a memorandum of understanding on cooperation with intelligence-gathering on money laundering and terrorism financing.
Other agreements are expected to be signed Wednesday in investment, tourism, housing and communications.
The two countries’ two-way trade totaled $27.5 billion last year.
India describes Saudi Arabia as a “key pillar” of its energy security. It provides about 17 percent of India’s crude oil and about a third of its liquefied natural gas.
The relationship may be more key as a deadline nears for India to comply with U.S. sanctions against Iran, India’s largest oil provider.
“The only positive part of this is to strengthen the relationship with Saudi Arabia to make up the oil deficit with Iran,” said Prem Shankar Jha, an economist and writer in New Delhi. “That is the only rational part I see” in the visit, he said.
Talking to media on the sidelines of the reception at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, MBS said that ‘India is in Saudi DNA’. “Today we want to be sure that this relationship is maintained and improved for the sake of both countries. With the leadership of the President and the PM, I am sure we can create good things for Saudi Arabia and India,” he further said.
“Our objective is to try to de-escalate tensions between the two countries, neighbouring countries, and to see if there is a path forward to resolving those differences peacefully,” Saudi minister of state Adel al-Jubeir was quoted as saying by news agency AFP. Welcoming the Crown Prince, PM Modi said, “India is delighted to welcome HRH Mohammed Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.”
India is delighted to welcome HRH Mohammed Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. pic.twitter.com/wBK1F1UZAA
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) February 19, 2019
The crown prince has a delicate balance to strike during his Asia tour, which will also take him to China.
In Islamabad, two government officials said Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan raised the issue of increasing tension with India during his talks with the prince. They said the prince was expected to encourage Indian leaders as well during his visit to New Delhi to try to resolve all issues through talks.
The Pakistani officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The trip comes five months after the crown prince came under intense pressure following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
In keeping with a long-standing policy of not commenting on countries’ internal affairs, India declined to take a position on the Washington Post columnist’s killing by Saudi agents at the consulate.
Cash-strapped Islamabad voiced support for the prince amid an international outcry, and gave a warm welcome this week. The Saudi Arabian delegation signed $20 billion in investment deals and vowed to free thousands of Pakistani prisoners in Saudi custody.