By Talmiz Ahmad
April 6, 2016
India’s ties with Saudi Arabia are complicated by several factors. Though a global energy and financial leader and placed at the heart of the doctrines and politics of Islam, the kingdom has a negative image for being on the wrong side of several issues of global importance: human rights, minority and gender sensitivity and popular participation in governance.
These factors have often prevented a balanced understanding of the country’s complex history, its present-day strategic interests and concerns and the deep respect the country and its leaders have for India. The success of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Riyadh will make sense only when this background is understood.
The Saudi leadership is wedded to the tenets of Wahhabiyya, an austere and demanding reform movement of the 18th century. But throughout the last century, successive rulers have fought traditional elements to accommodate in their nation modern-day technologies, institutions and ideas. Like other traditional societies, they know their country still has a long way to go, but they have never rejected the path of change.
Over the last decade or so, Saudi Arabia has experienced an increasing sense of strategic vulnerability as it has seen its neighbour, Iran, expand its influence across West Asia, penetrating into Arab lands, like Iraq, that had once maintained the balance of power in the region. Saudi Arabia is convinced that the “Shia crescent“led by Iran is effectively encircling it.
India and the kingdom were on opposite sides during the Cold War, when Saudi Arabia built up a solid military and political relationship with Pakistan, as they partnered the US in the global jihad in Afghanistan. This relationship was founded not on religious affinity but on mutual interest.
After the Cold War the kingdom reached out to India to rebuild political ties. This commenced with the visit to Riyadh of then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh in 2001. At that time the Saudi minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal, removed the bogey of Pakistan and Kashmir from the bilateral relationship and affirmed that his country viewed ties with India on their own merit: India and Pakistan were already “de-hyphenated“ in Saudi perceptions 15 years ago.
Soon thereafter, a “strategic energy partnership“was put in place during the Saudi monarch’s visit in 2006. This evolved into an agreement to cement a “strategic partnership“when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came to Riyadh in 2010. This progress was primarily due to the Mumbai attacks of 2008 which convinced the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries that Pakistan-sponsored jihad threatened the entire region.
Now, six years later, Prime Minister Modi and the Saudi monarch, King Salman bin Abdulaziz have imparted, through the joint statement concluded in Riyadh, value and substance to this partnership, signalling a strategic consensus between the two nations that are linked by history, culture and security concerns.
Every paragraph of the statement provides a specific idea or initiative to realise the strategic partnership, referring particularly to the details of cooperation in security, defence, intelligence and maritime security. Several paragraphs refer to combating terrorism through collaboration in intelligence-sharing, cyber security and exchanges between scholars to promote moderation in matters of faith and belief.
Central to the strategic consensus is the shared recognition of “the close interlinkage of the stability and security of the Gulf region and the Indian subcontinent and the need for maintaining a secure and peaceful environment“for the all-round development of the countries of the region.
This strategic consensus has been shaped in response to the very real challenges to regional security in the shape of two ongoing wars, in Syria and Yemen, the scourge of jihad across South and West Asia, and the rising tide of sectarianism that threatens to tear the fabric of most regional entities. The kingdom clearly sees Iran, with its sectarian and hegemonic agenda, as the principal threat to its interests. As viewed from Riyadh, the regional security scenario is complicated by the US’s increasing engagement with Iran and its reluctance to involve itself in regional contentions.
Unless the deep mistrust between the Saudi kingdom and the Islamic Republic is bridged, there can be no security or stability in the region. In fact, the escalation of tension even raises the nightmare prospect of a direct altercation between these Islamic giants, which will plunge the region in a conflagration, jeopardise India’s energy and economic interests and threaten the well-being of India’s eight million-strong diasporic community.
This unprecedented challenge calls for unconventional thinking and initiatives. The Dubai-based Gulf News showed the way forward when it stated in its editorial after the Modi visit: “The Gulf states are in the midst of a major strategic realignment towards India that recognises that the South Asian giant has to be an essential part of any long term Gulf security strategy .“
With his outreach, first to UAE and now to Saudi Arabia, Modi has conveyed that his approach to foreign relations is neither doctrinal nor ideological, but is shaped by his concern for his country’s strategic interests. Given that the security of South and West Asia is so deeply intertwined, India just cannot avoid initiating a lead diplomatic role to reconcile the estranged Islamic nations and over time obtain a cooperative security arrangement that would bring together all the nations with a stake in West Asian stability .Modi is well-placed to achieve this.