Earlier this month India and Saudi Arabia held their first ever joint naval exercise, called the Al-Mohed Al-Hindi Exercise. INS Kochi, the flagship destroyer of the Indian Western Naval Fleet participated in the drill after conducting the “Zayed Talwar” drill with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) off the coast of Abu Dhabi earlier.
The Indian Navy’s exercises with the UAE and Saudi Arabia are being held against the backdrop of growing tensions in the Persian Gulf following a drone attack on the tanker MV Mercer Street off Oman that killed a Briton and a Romanian.Saudi arabias Eastern Fleet commander Vice Admiral Majed Al-Qahtani said the exercise is the first of its kind between the Saudi and Indian navies, and will enhance military cooperation in naval operations. The Indian Embassy in Riyadh said that the naval exercises heralded “a new chapter in the bilateral defence ties between the two countries”.
India's Military Ties with Saudi Arabia Gaining Strength
India’s defence and military ties with Saudi Arabia received a major boost with Indian Army chief Gen MM Naravane’s visit to Riyadh – the first such trip by an Indian service chief – last December. Naravane had also visited the UAE on the same tour. These visits testify to the dynamic growth in Indo-Gulf relations in general and Indo-Saudi relations in particular.
Bilateral trade was worth $33 billion during the 2019-20 financial year, with India emerging the second-largest trading partner of Saudi Arabia in 2019, India procures18 percent of its crude oil and 30 percent of its liquefied petroleum gas needs from the kingdom. As of 2020 2.6 million Indians were living and working in Saudi Arabia. Cooperation has also continued through thr Covid-19 pandemic with both India and Saudi Arabia sending each day ther Covid-19 related supplies.
More importantly, ties which strengthened under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's watch through a number of high profile visits, charted new territories in defence and security. During Modi's October 2019 visit to Riyadh the Strategic Partnership Council (SPC) Agreement was signed, identifying India as one of the Kingdom’s Strategic Partner Countries under Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's ‘Vision 2030’ program.
India-Saudi Arabia Relations Independent of Pakistan
India-Saudi relations are no longer seen through the prism of India-Pakistan relations, neither are they contingent on the latter. Such cooperation has not only included intelligence sharing and deportation of men wanted by India on charges of terrorism, but have also seen greater understanding and appreciation of India's concerns on cross-border terrorism and on Jammu and Kashmir.
Thus, for instance, during India's surgical strikes on Muzaffarabad in the aftermath of the Pulwama terror attacks, the Saudis together with the UAE played a behind the scenes role to diffuse tensions between the two neighbours. When India derogated Jammu and Kashmir's special status in 2019 the Saudis expressed understanding about India's approach and actions.
Such bilateral cooperation and understanding assumes greater salience with the fast paced developments in Afghanistan where Saudi Arabia may have a key role to play.
Saudi Arabia's Influence in Afghanistan
Saudi Arabia is the first Muslim country to have called on the Taliban and “all Afghan parties” to preserve lives and property, after the extremists seized the capital Kabul.
A statement issued by the Saudi foreign ministry on Twitter added that the Kingdom “stands with the choices that the Afghan people make without any interference,” expressing hope that the situation in the central Asian state stabilises as soon as possible.
As the custodian of Islam's holiest sites, the kingdom still has an important role to play in the Muslim world, particularly in the Sunni world. Afghanistan is between 80% and 89% percent Sunni and over the years the Saudis have been investing in the country through grants, infrastructure, building of mosques and madrasas.
Saudi involvement in Afghanistan is, of course, historical. Riyadh formed one of the pillars of the Islamabad-Washington-Riyadh alliance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, aiding, funding and arming the Afghan mujahideen in their anti-Soviet jihad.
As such it has connections with the different Mujahideen factions there. It was one of the three countries—along with Pakistan and the UAE—that recognised the earlier Taliban government in Afghanistan. Even after it was overthrown, private Saudi entities are known to have continued funding to the group.
Saudis Can Negotiate Well with Taliban
This gives the Saudis some amount of leverage over the group. At the same time the kingdom has also been close to the Hamid Karzai government and has been involved in mediation efforts between it and the Taliban. Karzai is now back as part of the coordination council for a peaceful transition of power in Afghanistan after President Ghani fled the country.
Most importantly, Saudi Arabia, despite Pakistan's reorientation towards Turkey and Qatar still wields immense financial clout over Pakistan, the main backers of the Taliban, and also Afghanistan, where it has played a key role in the country's reconstruction.
Despite its low profile, all these factors definitely make the Saudis a major player in the Afghan arena.
India Needs to Partner with Saudi Arabia
The Saudis have been singed by the fires of religious extremism they helped spread in the 70s and 80s. Regime survival is paramount for the kingdom and it brooks no group or ideology which can threaten the status quo in the kingdom as well as in other Gulf monarchies. This is why, coupled with the imperatives of the modern world, the Crown Prince has set his country on a new course, curbing the power of the clerics, opening up the country, promoting women's rights, reforming the education system, etc.
The rise of Taliban is being carefully watched from the Gulf capitals. Analysts and governments across the world are wary of what this implies for terror and extremist groups across the world.
The Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), for example, already hailed the Taliban victory in Kabul. The AQAP remains a potent threat for the Saudis. With Pakistan in the driver's seat backed by China, and Russia—India's traditional ally—cosying up to the Taliban, India needs to partner and coordinate with other powers in the region with influence in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia offers one such partnership.
(Aditi Bhaduri is a widely-published journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)