Afghan Taliban likely to meet Saudi crown prince in Pakistan
Saudi Arabia's controversial crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is likely to meet representatives of the Taliban during a planned state visit to Pakistan, according to media reports on Saturday.
Pakistani officials told Reuters that the crown prince is set to meet members of the Taliban in Islamabad, although the state visit has been delayed by a day.
"Though it is top secret so far, there are strong indications representatives of the Afghan Taliban will meet Prince Salman during their visit of Pakistan on 18 February," a Pakistani official told the news agency.
A Taliban member said that a meeting with the crown prince is not on the agenda for the coming days, although the Afghan militia said representatives are due in the Pakistan capital.
"Actually meeting Prince Salman is not in the plan so far but we can discuss it when we are in Islamabad," the representative said.
The announcement comes after a breakthrough in US talks with the Taliban, which have been mostly held in Qatar - an arch Gulf rival of Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh has been keen to undermine the diplomatic reach of Qatar and its relationship with the US, which follows a Saudi-led blockade on Doha which began in June 2017.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also attempted to host talks with the US and Taliban, in what appeared to be an effort to derail the Qatari peace initiative.
"Previous reports indicated that Saudi Arabia and the UAE tried to sabotage Qatar's efforts to host talks between the Taliban and US," said Ali Bakeer, a Middle East analyst and researcher.
"Saudi Arabia is already in trouble with its relations with the US, EU and most countries in the region. Trying to sabotage or undermine Qatar's efforts with Afghanistan now will have dire consequences for Riyadh."
The crown prince's trip to Islamabad follows a visit by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to Qatar last month, where he worked on renegotiating a gas deal with Doha.
Khan has also recently made visits to allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where he sought financial support and investments from the energy-rich Gulf states.
Pakistan said on Saturday that the crown prince's visit to will be delayed by a day, with Mohammed bin Salman now due to land in Islamabad on Sunday.
No reason was given for the delay by the Pakistani office, which added that preparations had been made for the visit.
"The visit programme (itinerary) remains unchanged," the foreign office said in a statement.
Cash-strapped Pakistan is planning an extravagent welcome for the Saudi crown prince, in one of its biggest state visits in recent years.
Thousands of doves have been collected from cities across Pakistan, which will be released at a welcome ceremony along with thousands of balloons.
The crown prince will also fly in luxury vehicles and his own gym on two C130 military cargo planes, according to Pakistani and Gulf media.
Prince Mohammed is due to sign off a huge $10-billion refinery and oil investment in the Pakistani port of Gwadar - one of the biggest cash injection Islamabad's history.
Saudi Arabia is reportedly "turning east" and wooing countries such as Pakistan and China.
The move comes after the crown prince's reputation was sullied in Europe and North America following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, human rights abuses, and Riyadh's ruthless military campaign in Yemen.
Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October, by a team of intelligence and army officers considered close to the crown prince.
Although Riyadh has denied any official link in the murder of Khashoggi - a critic of Prince Mohammed - US and Turkish intelligence have linked the killing to the crown prince.
Saudi Arabia is one Pakistan's strongest military and political allies, particularly since efforts by both countries to undermine the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Riyadh and Islamabad were also among the few countries in the world to recognise the Taliban government in the mid-1990s, until the fundamentalist regime was overthrown following a 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan.