In the subcontinental blame game that has broken out over the deadly terrorist attack in Pulwama and tit-for-tat air strikes, Pakistan appears to have blinked first with India applying sudden and unrelenting pressure with the help of a largely supportive international community. Part of this was visible in India’s invitation as ‘guest of honour’ to the foreign ministerial meet of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) at Abu Dhabi, despite Pakistani objections, and the pride of place given to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj there, forcing Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to boycott the meeting.
A key reason for India coming up trumps diplomatically, despite a preliminary statement critical of Jammu & Kashmir, at the OIC was the steadfast support New Delhi received from its friends, the Saudis and the UAE. The recent state visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was instrumental in cementing that bonhomie between New Delhi and Riyadh.
Whether, as the Crown Prince said, ties between India and the Arabian peninsula are “in our DNA” or otherwise, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is proving to be vitally important for India, for a multitude of reasons. Very few of those have to do with our western neighbour, contrary to the narrative that played out around his visit on February 19 and 20, with his visit coming so soon after the terrorist attack in Kashmir in which over 40 Indian security personnel were killed in an explosion, for which the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility.
While the state visit of MBS, as the Crown Prince is better known, to New Delhi had been scheduled much in advance, the bloody Pulwama episode and his visit to Delhi after his brief sojourn in Islamabad caused an unfortunate hyphenation in the KSA’s relations with Pakistan and with India.
There is, however, a qualitative difference between India’s relationship with the KSA and the Saudi relationship with Pakistan; the first is a close partnership with shared interests, while the other is fraternal, bound broadly by religion and bailouts. To assume that strategic partnerships with critical countries can be a zero sum is to diminish the strength and character of that relationship, much like KSA does not ask India to choose between countries in West Asia and the Gulf.
Among key factors that have powered the India-Saudi strategic partnership to reach new levels in recent years are changing energy markets, the evolving global pattern of terrorism, the transnational threat of political violence, a decline in American global power and the rise of China.
What the MBS visit to New Delhi did was to raise the bar qualitatively on the bilateral relationship, which has been on a rapidly rising trajectory and what Ambassador Anil Trigunayat called “a higher and definitive orbit” since the landmark visit to India by King Abdullah in 2006, followed by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Riyadh in 2010, King Salman’s visit here in 2014 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to KSA in 2016.
Terrorism has been an area of common concern and the close bilateral linkages have seen much improved cooperation, making KSA an important dialogue partner on strategic issues, including real time intelligence sharing, countering money laundering and funding of political violence.
There is little doubt that Riyadh leaned heavily on Islamabad first to release and return the Indian Air Force pilot Wing Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman, who had ejected into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir when his aircraft was hit by a Pakistani jet, and then to de-escalate tensions by beginning to show verifiable action against terrorists it has been harbouring.
The joint statement issued after the Royal visit had some very strong condemnation of terrorism, stating that KSA and India “reject the use of terrorism against other countries; dismantle terrorism infrastructures where they happen to exist and to cut off any kind of support and financing to the terrorists perpetrating terrorism from all territories against other states; and bring perpetrators of acts of terrorism to justice,” some of which appears to be playing out in Pakistan.
Also significant in the India-Saudi joint statement was that “both sides called upon all countries to renounce the use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy.”
Further, as the custodian of Islam’s holiest two shrines, it is crucial for the Indian government to maintain cordial relations with Saudi Arabia and the optics of the warmth between the leaders is important for India, which has the world’s second largest Muslim population. The visit saw Saudi Arabia increase the Haj quota for Indians by 25,000 annually, to 200,000.
The Crown Prince’s first visit as head of delegation saw the establishment of the Strategic Partnership Council (or the Saudi-Indian Supreme Coordination Council) which will provide a structured framework for the multiple aspects of the relationship to get fast-tracked, from the security cooperation dialogue to the defence linkages, energy security and the economic partnership, comprising trade and investment in high tech, infrastructure, tourism and housing.
India is one of only eight countries to be made KSA’s strategic partner, the others being the US, UK, Germany, France, Japan, China and South Korea.
Defence cooperation between the two countries is set to significantly rise, with naval exercises and joint production facilities being explored, T S Tirumurti, Secretary in the External Affairs Ministry, said. These could include joint ventures in ship-building and defence hardware.
MBS, as the Crown Prince is better known, has developed a close personal bond with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and admitted that, “pursuant to the request of Prime Minister Modi, Saudi Arabia had decided not to curtail oil production so that the Indian economy, one of its largest clients, does not suffer,” said Trigunayat. Around 17 percent of India’s crude oil and 34 percent of LPG supplies are sourced from KSA.
The KSA, the world’s largest oil exporter, plays a vitally important role for India’s energy security and plans to help maintain India’s strategic oil reserve, while ensuring the welfare dynamic of the nearly three million strong Indian diaspora in that country, the largest expatriate community there, who are not only helping strengthen the Saudi economy, but also the Indian one through massive remittances home, to the tune of over USD10 billion.
For KSA, India is a source of food security and one of the countries on the kingdom’s preferred list as it looks at scaling up its investments in India given its status as an important food hub, officials said. KSA is also becoming a major investor in India, especially in the petrochemical sector and recently, Saudi ARAMCO, in partnership with ADNOC of UAE, entered into a Joint Venture for the USD 44 billion Ratnagiri Refinery and Petro-Chemical project Ltd.
The potential is immense, on multiple levels of interaction and cooperation between India and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The diplomatic dividend is already visible, at the OIC, where India has routinely been castigated for close to half a century, and kept out despite being home to over 185 million Muslims, and in Islamabad making moves to crack down on some terrorists to whom it has been playing host.
The strategic dividend from this vital relationship will flow from the guarantee of energy security and enhanced defence cooperation, particularly in the naval sphere, while economic dividends are underway.
(The writer is Editor, India Review & Analysis. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)