By Zikrur Rahman
15 March 2014
The much-hyped Look East policy of Saudi Arabia has its genesis in the US going soft on Syria and Iran. In growing relationship with the leader of Sunni Arab world, India has much to gain if it continues to take a middle course on the sectarian tinderbox in West Asia
Although some political analysts might consider the 10 years of the Manmohan Singh Government as a failure on the corruption front, the decade will go down in the annals of Indian political history for two reasons — first, the civil nuclear deal with the US, and second, the unprecedented improvement in our foreign relations with the Arab world, particularly Saudi Arabia.
The civil nuclear deal had to contend with attended security concerns in India arising out of the historical stigma attached to the scornful behaviour of the US owners towards the Bhopal gas victims, and had to pass the hurdles of guarantees against a Bhopal like disaster.
Fortunately, there has not been any major hurdle in the path of improving relations with the Arab world in the past decade. Seen in this context, the recent visit of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz and the signing of defence pact with India speak volumes for the growing relations between the two giants in their respective arena — the former being the largest nation in the Arab peninsula and latter the biggest emerging global power in the Indian subcontinent.
However, the happy turn of events is not sudden and confined to the Arab-India domain; rather it has its genesis in the changing Arab-US relations.
Looking East Away From the US
Saudi Arabia has been increasingly bringing focus to its “look east” policy in the last couple of years owing to its unhappiness with the American decisions on conflicts in West Asia, specifically on Syria and Iran which, as Saudi Arabia sees, will have far reaching consequences for the region. Their refusal to accept the UNSC non-permanent seat was a clear sign of their frustration with the over-dependence on the US for taking care of its interest in the region.
Saudi Arabia considers Syria as a country where the “tyrant military” is trying to eliminate the aspirations of the people. But at the same time, they admit that there are a number of undesirable terror elements, probably Afghan-Arabs, fighting against Assad’s Syria. These Al-Qaeda remnants who have formed Al-Nusra Front in Syria have been declared terrorists by the kingdom, because they are considered a threat to Saudi Arabia as well.
Now the Saudis are looking for alternatives to suit their national interests. And naturally, neighbouring giants like India and China fit the bill.
The turning point in India-Saudi relations came in 2006 when King Abdullah was invited as the chief guest on Republic Day functions. The Delhi Declaration could be described as the first step towards laying down the contours of strategic partnership between India and Saudi Arabia.
But the most significant gesture was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Riyadh visit in 2010 and the resultant “Riyadh Declaration” which took forward Delhi Declaration, covering areas like energy security, information technology and outer space.
The visits of the heads of two governments were complemented by high-level visits and agreements. The former intelligence chief of Saudi Arabia, Prince Turki Bin Faisal, one of the dominant figures in the Saudi security affairs, visited India and the concerted efforts yielded the much sought-after Extradition Treaty. Before this agreement, there were lots of allegations of anti-India elements getting refuge in Saudi Arabia. They took it seriously and made concerted efforts to ensure those anti-India elements against whom there are substantial evidence are extradited.
Crown Prince Salman’s February-end visit to India has given a fresh impetus to the boosting relations. The Crown Prince came with a large delegation of business class as well. SAGIA — Saudi Arabia General Investment Agency — and Invest India have taken forward business relations. Maybe the next meeting will see the inking of ties for opening up platforms for investment into each other’s nation.
As Saudi Arabia is a powerful Arab nation, whose foreign relations do impact that of other nations in the region, its improving ties with India has helped other Arab countries follow suit. For example, King of Bahrain and his national security adviser visited India. Foreign Minister of UAE and PM of Kuwait were important dignitaries among the flurry of Arab leaders flocking to India.
Developments in Syria and the resultant current discourse in West Asia have acquired a dangerous sectarian dimension which is a matter of great concern for India. New Delhi considers the Arab region as its immediate neighbourhood and does not want the effects of whatever is happening in the region to spill over to India in any manner. Any division on sectarian lines poses a dangerous threat to its own polity and fabric of unity.
While it is cementing its relations with Riyadh, it also has an abiding interest in the simultaneous development of its relationship with Iran. Also, being a bordering country of Afghanistan, Iran is bound to play a pivotal role there after the withdrawal of American forces.
Apart from these concerns, India is aware that we have around two million Indians working in Saudi Arabia, and a huge amount of remittance from Saudi Arabia is adding to our economy. Pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia is one of the main sources of political economic and social relationship with India.
India thinks with its good relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, it can help bridge the gap between the two competing nations in the gulf.
The most alarming concern in India has been the perception of Saudi Arabia’s financial and moral support to the elements of security threat to India. However, in the last six years, Saudi Arabia has done its best to dispel the fears in clear terms by extraditing a number of wanted terror suspects to India that endangering India and its security is not in their national interest at all.
They seem to have been successful in convincing India not to see the India-Saudi relations through the prism of Pakistan-Saudi affairs. Their bilateral relations with Pakistan are separate and are in their own national interests like India’s relations with their arch rival Israel are in India’s national interests and have nothing to do with either India-Saudi strategic partnership or Arab-Israel conflict.
(As told to Swarn Kumar Anand)
Prof. Zikrur Rahman is a former diplomat who has served in the Indian mission in Saudi Arabia for almost ten years. He was the Indian Consul in Jeddah and First Secretary in Riyadh. At present, he is Director, India Arab Culture Centre and Centre for West Asian Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi