Shahid M Amin
India has a clear game plan viz. to isolate Pakistan from its close friends like the UAE and Saudi Arabia. It was largely in this context that Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid his first visit to Saudi Arabia last week. He was the fourth Indian Prime Minister to visit Saudi Arabia: after Jawaharlal Nehru in 1956, Indira Gandhi in 1982 and Manmohan Singh in 2010. This record shows the paucity of high-level visits by Indian leaders to Saudi Arabia, for the evident reason that Saudi Arabia has been a close ally of Pakistan. In the two India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971, Saudi Arabia extended military and other support to Pakistan.
During his stay in Riyadh, Modi was conferred the highest civilian award, The King Abdul Aziz Order, which is seen as a mark of Saudi friendship. Several bilateral agreements were signed during Modi’s visit and a joint statement was issued. Apart from the usual platitudes, it stressed the resolve of both countries to fight jointly together against terrorism and called on all states to abandon the use of terror against other countries. Indian circles interpreted this as a message to Pakistan and a Saudi criticism of Pakistan. But with the current focus being on arrest of an Indian RAW spy in Pakistan, involved in fomenting terrorism, the Saudis could be making a critical reference to India.
In the economic and manpower spheres, India and Saudi Arabia have had a strong relationship. Their bilateral trade stands at $ 39.4 billion (the figure for Pakistan is $ 6.1 billion). Saudi Arabia is a major source for India’s oil imports, supplying one-fifth of its annual demands. Indian workers in Saudi Arabia are about 28 lakhs while there are about 15 lakh Pakistanis in the kingdom. In the Gulf countries altogether, as of 2015, there were around 7.3 million Indians (64% of the total Indian workers abroad). Their remittances stood at $ 36 billion (about 52% of total remittances received by India). The Gulf region is the main source of India’s imported oil and natural gas (58% of its oil imports and 88% of its liquefied natural gas imports).
An improvement in Saudi-Indian relations has been noticeable for some years. King Abdullah visited India in 2006 and Manmohan Singh visited Saudi Arabia in 2010, when the two sides issued Declarations affirming their desire to enhance their relationship. More recently, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir visited India in March 2016. He stated that India was a “very important partner” for Saudi Arabia but had added that “Pakistan is a strategic ally and will remain so.”
Energy remains a pivotal factor in Saudi-Indian relations. Saudi Arabia is the largest oil supplier for India. In 2014-15, it supplied 34.49 million tons of crude oil to India. From the Saudi point of view, India is long-term assured market for its oil. India is hoping that the strategic energy partnership with Saudi Arabia will help address energy issues for India’s growing economy. Indian objective is to maintain a strategic crude oil reserve of five million metric tons for any future exigencies. This was suggested by Manmohan Singh and Modi’s visit has accelerated the movement to deepen ties in energy infrastructure.
Five agreements were signed during Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia. They related to labour cooperation, technical cooperation, exchange of intelligence on money laundering and terrorism financing, handicrafts, and an agreement on investment promotion. None of these agreements seem to be earth-shaking. Modi met the top CEOs of major Saudi companies and visited a Tata Consultancy Service centre which had trained over 1000 Saudi women. He also met the Indian community but did not have the kind of public meeting that he had earlier addressed during visits to other countries, including UAE.
Much has been made in India of the conferment of the highest Saudi civil award on Modi. No doubt, this showed the warming up of relations between the two countries. But the protocol extended to Modi was less than expected. He was received on arrival by the Governor of Riyadh. Neither the King nor the Crown Prince or Deputy Crown Prince received him. This contrasts with the level of reception given to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during his recent visits to Saudi Arabia.
Indian commentators are claiming that Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia has ‘unnerved’ Pakistan and will lead to a weakening of Saudi ties with Pakistan. Similar concerns have been aired by some observers in Pakistan. So how should Modi’s visit be evaluated in the context of any shifts in Saudi policies? No doubt, there is some change in emphasis in Saudi policies towards the two South Asian countries. An editorial in “Gulf News” claimed that the “Gulf states are in the midst of a major strategic realignment towards India that recognises that India has to be an essential part of any long-term Gulf security strategy.” However, the fact of the matter is that the present Saudi leadership favours military intervention in Syria and Yemen while India calls for restraint.
Riyadh has set up a military coalition of 34 Muslim countries and is pressing General Raheel Sharif, the Pakistan army chief, to become head of the coalition forces. India has no place in such a coalition and probably sees it as an alarming development. Saudi Arabia has a kind of cold war going on against Iran, whereas India has established a strategic relationship with Iran in the past decade. India is also apprehensive of the spread of Saudi Wahhabi ideology that could be having an influence over the large Muslim population of India.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia continues to see Pakistan as its most important ally. In case of any internal or external threat to Saudi security, it is Pakistan alone that has the past record and the present willingness to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Saudi regime. There is some understanding also of nuclear cooperation between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the theoretical (but unlikely) event that Saudi Arabia needs such support. India cannot fulfil any such role. Against this background, there can hardly be any “strategic partnership” between India and Saudi Arabia.
No doubt, the Saudi and UAE leadership was disappointed when Pakistan did not extend the kind of support that they had expected on military intervention in Yemen. The matter was clumsily handled when the Nawaz Sharif government passed the ball to Parliament where some unfortunate comments were made that rankled the Saudis. It was probably this background that produced the counter-moves to woo India, firstly by UAE and next by Saudi Arabia. In diplomacy, such manoeuvring keeps taking place. While Islamabad must not ignore the significance of these developments, the fundamentals of Saudi-Pakistan ties remain intact and there is no strategic shift in Saudi priorities. Saudi Arabia will continue to need Pakistan in the days ahead, and vice versa.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.