Saudi King’s Visit to Strengthen India-Saudi Arabia Relationship
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and King Salman (R) who is likely to visit India later this year
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and King Salman (R) who is likely to visit India later this year(Photo: The Quint)

Saudi King’s Visit to Strengthen India-Saudi Arabia Relationship

Expect the India-Saudi Arabia strategic relationship to gain higher trajectories in the coming months, a development that is bound to be watched very closely by Pakistan as well as China. And make no mistake about it – it’s going to be one of the most happening bilateral relationships in the year 2018.

High-Profile Bilateral To-and-Fros

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will be in Saudi Arabia in the second week of February, where India is the guest of honour at Janadriyah Festival on the outskirts of Riyadh. The Saudi gesture of inviting India as guest of honor for their national festival of heritage and culture carries very important diplomatic symbolism, which unarguably demonstrates the growing importance of India for the Kingdom – a Kingdom which, of late, has embarked upon the process of major social reforms and making the country more liberal and democratic.

After this, King Salman himself is likely to visit India later this year – a rarity as the Saudi King doesn’t undertake too many foreign visits. Saudi Arabia has got a new embassy building in New Delhi and with a 17,500 square-metre complex, the Saudi embassy will be the largest in India. King Salman is likely to inaugurate the new embassy building. and Sushma Swaraj’s upcoming Saudi visit will also be useful for preparations of the royal visit to India.

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India-Saudi Arabia relations are thickening fast, a relationship that is a potential game-changer in the context of not only Indian foreign policy but also regional and international power politics.

In international politics, the barometer of relations between two sovereign states is the level and intensity of bilateral engagements, which in turn is gauged by the level of bilateral to-and-fro visits.

Saudi-India Bonhomie: Alarm Bells for China, Pakistan

The increasing India-Saudi bonhomie is bound to send shock waves not only to Pakistan and China but also to the United States.

The growing proximity between India and Saudi Arabia would set off alarm bells in Pakistan. The clear signal from Riyadh is that it is dehyphenating its India and Pakistan policies and is ready to take India in its strategic embrace, no matter what Pakistan thinks or says.

Riyadh has been Islamabad's close strategic partner for decades. The House of Saud, the royal family governing Saudi Arabia, has been very thick with the political and military establishments of Pakistan. Riyadh was home for Nawaz Sharif after he was ousted from the prime minister’s office in a bloodless coup by the then Pakistan army chief General Pervez Musharraf in 1999. Riyadh conducted a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomacy with Pakistan and influenced Pakistani polity a great deal in those tumultuous times.

The Saudi role in the internal politics of Pakistan has never diminished since then and has, in fact, gone from strength to strength. Moreover, the Saudis have traditionally opened up their purse strings to Pakistan-based terrorist and fundamental outfits which have irked the Indians, and whipped up Wahabi passions and accentuated Wahabi ideologies in India.

An important point that arises is that Riyadh cannot continue with its age-old Pakistan policy – and the Saudi largesse to Pakistani outfits targeting India – as usual business after a perked-up engagement with the Indians.

Therefore, a spike in Saudi Arabia's political, diplomatic and security engagements with India will mean reduced heft for Pakistan with the Saudis. But this is merely a logical deduction. One will have to wait and see if these benefits actually percolate down to New Delhi in the near future.

A Message to the Americans (and the Chinese)

The increasing India-Saudi bonhomie is a message to the Americans as well. The Iran factor plays a big role in this context. By ramping up their partnership with India, the Saudis want to send a signal to the US, despite the Trump administration’s recent foreign policy Initiatives which have gone in favour of Riyadh (at the expense of Iran), even as India has pursued a fiercely independent foreign policy by engaging itself with such diverse powers like Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The signal is that an emerging power like India can no longer be ignored, especially when India has been carefully calibrating its foreign policy by counterbalancing the relevant players like the US, Russia, Israel, Iran, Palestine and the Islamic world at large.

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An equally important message is reserved for China in this context. China has invested hugely in Saudi Arabia, politically as well as economically. But now China has a serious competitor in the Saudi strategic space: India.

China has invested in Saudi Arabia since the visit to Riyadh by the then Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 1999, which resulted in the mutual signing of the 1999 Strategic Oil Cooperation agreement. The agreement stipulated that China would open its oil refinery sector to Saudi Arabia if Saudi Arabia would allow for exploration and development opportunities for Chinese investors. While the agreement acted as a starting point for bilateral relations, the results of the agreement were small, as China was not able to use most of the sour crude oil provided by Saudi Arabia's new reserves in Chinese refining facilities. Since then, China-Saudi relations have gone from strength to strength and today the two countries have a vibrant strategic partnership.

Interestingly, Saudi Arabia did not recognise PRC till 1990, while it had diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Both China and Riyadh have worked through back channels since the late eighties. The result was that Saudi Arabia did not issue any negative statement about China over the controversial Tiananmen incident of 1989. By the next year, Riyadh switched partners, established full diplomatic ties with China and broke away from Taiwan despite its over four-decade-old relationship with Taiwan.

Significantly, India and Saudi Arabia are rebooting their bilateral relationship in the year 2018, which marks the 70th year of establishment of their diplomatic relations. The India-Saudi Arabia relationship, which largely remained confined to energy-centred partnership for decades, is now being upgraded and transformed into a multi-dimensional relationship – truly a strategic relationship.

And a big role in this context has been played by Saudi Arabia's young and dynamic Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the son of King Salman, who has of late embarked upon an ambitious plan of modernising Saudi Arabia and has been injecting moderation into the Saudi domestic policies in all spheres, particularly by beginning to give women their due in the Saudi social and political space.

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The Crown Prince has told his officials that he wants to take his country’s strategic partnership with India to a much higher level.

Not unsurprisingly, therefore, India and Saudi Arabia strategic cooperation has of late witnessed growing security and intelligence cooperation, much of which does not get publicised. The growing New Delhi-Riyadh synergy is demonstrated by the fact that Saudi Arabia strongly condemned the terrorist attack on an Indian Army camp in Uri, Jammu and Kashmir in September 2016, even though it was clear that it was choreographed from across the border in Pakistan.

(Rajeev Sharma is a strategic analyst and columnist who tweets @ishkindha. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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