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International relations

Saudi crown prince plots diplomatic comeback with Pakistan aid

Mohammed bin Salman plays to friendly crowds to move past Khashoggi scandal

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, right, greets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Khan government has built a relationship of mutual support with Riyadh.   © Reuters

DUBAI/NEW DELHI -- Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is on a mission to repair his standing in the international community, kicking off a three-country tour of Asia this weekend with a pledge to spend $20 billion on economic cooperation with Pakistan.

Much of the West remains suspicious of the crown prince over his possible involvement in the October killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Now he is returning to the diplomatic stage by touring friendly nations.

Saudi Arabia has been a "brotherly" and "friendly" country to Pakistan through good times and bad, the crown prince said Sunday in Islamabad at the signing of economic agreements. About $10 billion will be invested in an oil refinery and petrochemical facility in Gwadar, southwest Pakistan. The complex, designed to process 250,000 to 300,000 barrels per day, is expected to help Pakistan reduce its trade deficit.

The crown prince is a figure of great importance to the government of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, which took power in August. The Saudis were the first to offer aid to the young government as its foreign-currency reserves dwindled in the face of a significant current-account deficit.

Khan threw his support behind Crown Prince Mohammed even after the Khashoggi incident by attending a Saudi investment conference as planned later in October. In return, Riyadh offered $6 billion in support to Islamabad, a portion of it as deferred-payment facilities for oil imports. The new pledge made this past weekend appears to be a new step in that relationship.

The crown prince's next two destinations, India and China, are thought to have been picked partly because they are less likely to push hard on the Khashoggi issue.

Meanwhile, distrust in Riyadh remains deep in Europe and America. The European Union's executive body, the European Commission, added Saudi Arabia last week to a blacklist of countries with inadequate protections against money laundering and terrorism financing. If the addition is endorsed, banks in member states will have to run extra checks on transactions involving Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi government plans to take out bank loans and issue bonds this year to help fund the crown prince's economic reform efforts at home. Being blacklisted could deal this a major blow.

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