By K.N. Pandita
After concluding the Nuclear Security Summit meet in Washington (31 March – 1 April), Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be visiting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Objective analyses of Modi’s visits abroad reveal his penchant for reassessing India’s regional and global relationships with a view of infusing new vitality in the tenets of our foreign policy. His first visit to Middle East region was not to Israel as observers would have anticipated but to Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
When Modi’s visit to Abu Dhabi hit the headlines of major newspapers in the region, Pakistani leading English daily Dawn termed it as “wake up call for Pakistan.”
India and Saudi Arabia have been exchanging visits of top level dignitaries in the past. However, new vitality was infused into their relations when King Abdullah visited India in January 2006 and was the Guest of Honour at our Republic Day celebrations.
India gives importance to friendly relations with the Saudi Kingdom. It is our largest supplier of oil. Nearly 2.8 million Indian workers are based in that country and make substantial remittances of foreign exchange back home. Yet this is not only a one-way traffic; Saudis are conscious of the large scope of investment India is capable of offering as well.
Lately, the Saudi-American relationship has met with a short and unusual spell of hibernation. After adhering to its foreign policy for too long, a period verging on stagnation, the Saudis ensconced themselves with a shift and adoption of ‘Look East Policy.’ One important reason for this shift was that the U.S. was no more in need of Saudi oil, which also meant a reorientation of Saudi-US relations.
At the same time, India and China are new and alluring customers of Saudi hydrocarbon reserves for more than one reason. Both are oil hungry, both are fast-growing economies and both are home to vast populations with a rapidly burgeoning middle class. All this is sufficient temptation for the Saudi corporate business houses to focus on India.
Riyadh is looking for a new business partnership, not an alliance. The US-Saudi alliance has weathered the vagaries of history and their pattern of alliance is resting on a solid foundation that will not get dislodged by the surge of new exigencies or opportunities.
The point is that Saudi Arabia’s India option is not America centric. Neither India nor China is nursing any ambition of replacing the United States in the Gulf. On that count, there is no scope of any misunderstanding at any level when visits of top leadership of India and Saudi Arabia are undertaken. Objective assessment shows that neither China nor India has any covert intention of replacing the U.S. in the Gulf.
Nevertheless, observers will not cease unraveling the political dimensions of Modi’s Saudi visit. Two regional countries, Pakistan and Iran, come into focus. In the context of Pakistan, we have noted that ahead of Modi’s visit to Riyadh, Saudi foreign minister Adel-al-Jubair, during his visit to Pakistan said, “Saudi relations with Pakistan do not come at the expense of India.” It obviously meant that Saudi-Pak relations remain in place and would not be affected by India extending a hand of friendship to the Saudis.
There are no two opinions on very close and solid relations between Riyadh and Islamabad. Pakistan is an important ally of the Saudis and the Pakistani military is the trusted bodyguard of the Saudi monarchy. Saudis have financed Pakistan’s nuclear program and Pakistan bemused itself calling it an ‘Islamic nuclear bomb.’
However, more recent developments are noticeable. When Islamabad declined to be part of 34-Islamic nations security coalition proposed by Riyadh, Saudi Foreign Minister al Jubair and Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammad bin Salman visited Pakistan at short interval. By declining to commit troops in Yemen in April 2015, Pakistan caused ripples in her relations with the Kingdom.
Maybe Modi could cash in on this opportunity. If, like in Abu Dhabi, Modi is able to make the Saudis agree to a joint communiqué that condemns states using religion to sponsor terrorist activities at home and abroad, it would be a big step forward in commonality of thinking between India and Saudi Arabia in the context of countering international terror.
The position of Iran in the context of Indo-Saudi relations is different from the position of Pakistan. Iran, really, does not stand in the way of India and Saudi Arabia invigorating their mutual relationship, particularly in the realm of trade and commerce. India has good relations with Iran. She is well aware of the nature of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In framing the nature or relationship, Saudis, like any other country, give priority to their national interests.
India is not a small country that the Saudis would think of pressuring to downgrade her relations with Iran. India has vital strategic interest in a friendly Iran notwithstanding Iran meeting part of our hydrocarbon energy requirements.
India has vital strategic interest in restoring peace in war-torn Afghanistan and Iran has a significant role in that process. Iran has provided a corridor to India via Chah Bahar sea port for conducting trade with Central Asian region. After sanctions were lifted from Iran in the aftermath of signing the nuclear treaty, Teheran announced massive investment to the tune of 7 billion dollars in India and India is a vital partner in the development of infrastructure in Iran.
In view of this ground reality, Riyadh will have no justification to think of pressuring India for a shift in her Iran policy. And if she does, India will flatly refuse it. Modi is not the man to whom Saudis can sell blackmail.
This said India and the Saudis have also common interest in other vital areas. Both are pitted against the onslaughts of jihadis directly or indirectly. The two countries have lately developed cooperation in sharing intelligence about terrorists and their activities. In June 2012, the Saudis deported to India one Abu Jundal, a suspect terrorist linked to the 26/11 Mumbai attack.
Lastly, but more importantly, the Islamic State has emerged as common enemy to both countries. The Saudi monarchy is a major target of ISIS, and ISIS moles in India are alluring Indian Muslim youth to join the jihadis.
Modi’s impending visit to Saudi Arabia will essentially concentrate on two objectives. One is to find ways and means of strengthening joint anti-terrorism plans and programs and the second is to open vistas of trade and commerce between the two countries with large space for private enterprise. Strengthening Indo-Saudi relations will also have an impact on the future course of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation which comprises 53 Islamic States.