The View from India | What’s Mohammed bin Salman up to?

Understand international affairs from the Indian perspective with View from India

Updated - April 19, 2023 08:08 am IST

Published - April 18, 2023 05:52 pm IST

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia | Photo Credit: Reuters

(This article forms a part of the View From India newsletter curated by The Hindu’s foreign affairs experts. To get the newsletter in your inbox every Monday, subscribe here.)

When Saudi Arabia and Iran announced an agreement last month to reestablish diplomatic relations under China’s mediation, many were surprised and sceptical. For decades, its rivalry with Iran was the main driver of Saudi foreign policy. But the Iran-Saudi rapprochement, it appears, was only the beginning of a larger realignment that’s under way in West Asia. Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, who tried to expand the kingdom’s influence in the region through conflicts (Yemen, Syria) and coercion (Qatar), appears to have changed his foreign policy course and adopted aggressive diplomacy instead to meet his strategic goals.

After agreeing to resume ties with Iran, Riyadh hosted an Arab regional meeting to discuss Syria’s re-entry into the Arab League, which is likely to take place soon. A Saudi delegation also visited Yemen to hold talks with the country’s Iran-backed Shia Houthi rebels, who have been controlling the capital Sana’a and parts of the country in the north since 2014. In a sign of improving ties between the warring sides, the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition began a prisoner exchange on Friday. The three-day exchange saw flights transport more than 800 prisoners between Saudi Arabia and Sanaa. Riyadh also hosted a Hamas delegation over the weekend to reconcile with the Palestinian Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, which is under an Israeli blockade. A few years ago, Saudi Arabia had cracked down on Hamas, which has close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood Islamist movement that the Kingdom sees as a rival. In recent years, the U.S. and Israel have also been pushing Saudi Arabia to normalise ties with Israel under the Abraham Accords. But by hosting the Hamas delegation, Riyadh, which will also host the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, is sending a different signal.

MBS, as the Crown Prince is widely known, seems to be moving away from the traditional Saudi foreign policy that was anchored in the Kingdom’s alliance with the U.S. and rivalry with Iran, and is taking a more realistic and pragmatic view of West Asian geopolitics. He is also trying to inject some balance into Saudi Arabia’s ties with great powers in the region—the U.S., its traditional ally, Russia, its OPEC+ partner, and China, the new great power in the region. In this explainer, we take a deeper look at Saudi Arabia’s quest for strategic autonomy in its foreign policy.

Sudan on the brink

This satellite photo shows two burning planes at Khartoum International Airport, Sudan

This satellite photo shows two burning planes at Khartoum International Airport, Sudan | Photo Credit: AP

When Omar Bashir, who ruled Sudan through an iron grip for 30 years, fell in a mass uprising in 2019, many hoped that the resource-rich country in the Horn of Africa would finally get a chance to move towards a freer society with a representative and responsive administration. But in four years, the military is not just back, but a power struggle between the country’s top two Generals has pushed Sudan to the brink of a civil war. Just two years ago, the Generals, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the military chief as well as the head of the Sovereignty Council, the transitional administration, and his deputy, Lt.Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, stood hand in hand when they ousted a civilian transition government and took over the reins of the country. Under domestic and international pressure, they later agreed to hand over power back to the civilians, but differences emerged on who should control the post-transition military. Gen. Burhan supports the integration of the RSF into the regular military and transition to civilian government to take place in two years, while Gen. Dagalo, who fears that he would lose his clout, wants to delay it by 10 years. “Discord grew into mistrust and mistrust led to fighting. And the fighting could drag the country, which has a history of internal strife, into an all-out civil war,” The Hindu wrote in this editorial. More than 100 people, mostly civilians, have already been killed, which has triggered international calls for truce and talks. But the Generals have ignored such calls and vowed to continue to attack. Four years ago, Sudanese revolutionaries wanted freedom from the military’s dictatorship. Today, they are caught between two Generals who are fighting each other to control the country where, as per the UN estimates, a third of the population are suffering from hunger.

Junta keeps killing

The Myanmar junta carried out air strikes on an opposition gathering in the rebel-held Sagaing region, killing over 100, including women and children. 

The Myanmar junta carried out air strikes on an opposition gathering in the rebel-held Sagaing region, killing over 100, including women and children.  | Photo Credit: AP

Myanmar’s military did it again. On Tuesday, the junta carried out air strikes on an opposition gathering in the rebel-held Sagaing region, killing over 100, including women and children. The National Unity Government (NUG), the parallel administration formed by opposition groups, as well as witnesses, said a fighter jet and a combat helicopter bombed the gathering, which was celebrating the opening of an administrative office of the NUG. In a statement sent to The Hindu, the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) consisting of the opposition parties and ethnic groups opposed to the junta, said the military rulers of Myanmar are committing war crimes in the country. Myanmar’s military is notorious for its scant regard for human rights. But this time, the junta is facing unprecedented pressure from the political opposition, which has joined hands with ethnic rebels, to fight the military. In response, the military is carrying out indiscriminate attacks, including air strikes, in rebel-held territories. In this editorial, The Hindu argues that the status quo is unsustainable. “Regional powers cannot look away when a thuggish regime keeps killing its people with impunity... They should use their economic and political clout to force the generals to stop the violence and enter into talks with the opposition.”

The Top Five

As the Ukraine war grinds on, Russia, India seek ways to keep defence trade afloat:A year after the war began, there are growing concerns about Russia’s ability to continue to supply defence systems to India, but officials and experts say trade could flourish once payment issues are resolved, Ksenia Kondratieva reports from St. Petersburg.

In Dhaka’s mushrooming markets, fear of fire always lingers:The Bangladesh capital’s crowded markets, which provide an economic lifeline to hundreds of thousands of workers, have also been death traps with fire incidents reported every year, Arun Devnath reports from Dhaka.

The Dalai Lama | Straddling the spiritual and the political:The spiritual leader who fled to India in 1959 is now seeking a non-violent resolution of the ‘Tibetan question’, modernising the political and temporal aspects of the organisation in exile and greater autonomy for Tibetans within the region, writes Srinivasan Ramani in The Hindu Profiles.

Good Friday Agreement | Echoes from the ‘Troubles’:As Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government remains suspended, the U.S. is urging all sides to keep up the spirit of the 1998 deal that brought peace to the region, writes G. Sampath in The Hindu Profiles.

Finland’s journey, from neutral to NATO:Finland’s membership only highlights the point that Moscow and Helsinki need to engage in bilateral dialogue to try and understand their security concerns, writes Tatiana Belousova.

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