A New Chapter in India-Saudi Arabia Relations

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. (File photo: PTI}
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. (File photo: PTI}

In his six-day-long (9 – 14 December 2020) visit to the UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Army Chief, General MM Naravane was given a red carpet reception by the hosts as it was the first visit of any Indian Army Chief to the two strategically important countries in the Gulf region. In both countries, the Indian Army Chief met and interacted with his counterparts and other top military and civilian brass besides visiting some of their prestigious defence establishments. The itinerary of the General’s engagements in the two countries shows the importance attached to the visit.

General Naravane is reported to have discussed during his first leg, the enhancing of India-UAE defence relations with senior military officials of the host country. He is also said to have taken forward the “excellent defence cooperation between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and India through multiple meetings with senior functionaries of the security establishment and exchange views on various defence-related issues,” said the Indian Army in a note. These include the Headquarters of Royal Saudi Land Force, the Joint Force Command Headquarters and King Abdulaziz War College. The Chief of the Army Staff also addressed the students and faculty at the National Defence University. All this explains the importance given by the hosts to the rare visit of the top brass of Indian Army.

By and large, national print media did not go beyond defining the visit a super courtesy call. But seemingly, there is something more than what meets the eye, particularly in the wake of two related events taken up together in this context. One is that days ahead of the General’s visit, our Minister of External Affairs had concluded his two-day visit to Bahrain and the UAE where he interacted with his counterparts and top echelons. The other is the fast-changing political scenario in the region which has thrown up political issues with security ramifications. It is likely to unfold the prospect of new and unprecedented re-alignment among the Littoral and regional states with a stake.

The Gulf states interacting with India in various fields seem to have understood the significance of Modi government trying to expand and deepen bilateral and even multilateral relations with the Littoral states based on their economic and strategic importance. They are also aware of India’s naval and maritime outreach in the Indian Ocean including the Arabian Gulf.

The entire Muslim world is in a state of suspense and the shadow of polarization is looming large over it. Some non-Arab Muslim states are making no secret of their aversion to Saudi Arabia, the bastion of traditional Islam, with its satellite state of UAE, poised for pulling out their societies from the steel-frame of orthodoxy and gradually opening to a modernized egalitarian structure under the reformative policy of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, generally nicknamed MBS. The agenda conspicuously favours updated relations with the US, normalization of relations with Israel and shifting of state emphasis from ecclesiastics to the economy in the Muslim countries.

To some radical old guard Islamic states where political interests are made subservient to religion, the reformative agenda sounds outlandish, being a deviation from the traditional policy of the ruling House of Shah Saud.

Relaxation in the observance of strict conservative code and conduct of Islamic life allowed by MBS is not as much repugnant to them as his liberalized foreign policy, particularly towards Israel. A realization has dawned upon the Gulf states that continued animosity against Israel not only upsets relations with the US but also provides space to Shia Iran to inch towards the leadership of the Islamic ummah on a wrong premise.  In addition to this, Iran’s relentless effort to achieve nuclear capability is a potent threat to the Saudi monarchy. Way back in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic Revolution of Iran had pronounced Saudi monarchy as illegal and hence anti–Islam. The attack of Iranians in Ka’aba had resulted in the massacre of nearly 500 insurgents. This threat is at the root of US-Iran nuclear spat.

The threat to the person and power of MBS cannot be ruled out for more than one reason. The royal house is a den of intrigues and we should not forget that rivalries in the royal dynasty have led to brutal murders at times. In a scenario in which Iranian belligerence coupled with her frantic pursuit of nuclear technology persists, Saudi Kingdom and its satellite state the UAE are vulnerable. This could have been the catalyst to recent UAE-Israel coming together, a prospect that is likely to be emulated by other Littoral states as well. Short of formal recognition, Saudi-Israel bilateral relations are doing well.

The machination of three non-Arab Islamic states, namely Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia trying to wrest the leadership of the Islamic world and the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) from the hands of the Saudis have their narrow individual interests rather than that of the ummah. President Erdogan is dreaming the faded glory of the Ottoman Empire, Malaysian Mahathir hopes Islamic slogan is the only option to reinforce his political survival and Pakistan feels that the Saudis are impeding her designs in Kashmir.

These machinations have backfired. UAE and Saudi both want Pakistani labour force to quit and issuance of visa to Pakistani nationals has been suspended. Pakistan’s stand in the inter-Arab conflict in the Middle East and the Gulf has become doubtful in the eyes of Riyadh and there is serious thinking in the ruling circles on how the Pakistani Brigade stationed in Riyadh as bodyguards to the royal house would behave. We know that MBS had summoned Pakistani Prime Minister and admonished him to desist from joining the bandwagon of Malaysian Mahathir Muhammad. Unable to withstand the pressure from Riyadh, premier Imran Khan gave in and the Islamic Summit ended in a fiasco. It has undone the scheme of things planned by the Pakistan Army and ISI, and the hawks would not want to lie low. They made their foreign minister as their spokesman who exuded angst against Riyadh only to receive a blow below the belt.

In all probability, there is serious thinking in Riyadh of re-assessing the security structure of the state and the guard of the royal house, overhaul the entire Saudi defence build up to make it independent, a pro-nationalist and professional force which draws inspiration from Arab rather than Islamic identity. It is India alone that fulfils the criteria set forth by MBS in tandem with UAE and some more littoral states that can plan and execute the restructuring based on the trust built by close friendship of the two leaders Crown Prince MBS and PM Modi. General Narvane’s visit has to be assessed in this background also.

The visit of the Indian Army Chief to the two important Gulf States has immensely frustrated Islamabad which is trying all the tricks in the kitty of ISI to undo it so much so that they have floated rumours that India is going to sell anti-missile system and Brahmos missiles to Saudi Arabia and that the Pakistani Brigade in Riyadh is going to be replaced by the Indian Brigade and that General Raheel Sharif had been forced to resign and return home etc. This explains the frustration.

Prime Minister Modi has very deftly played the Middle East and Littoral States card, winning the highest civilian award of the twin countries of Saudi Arabia and UAE as the leader of a dependable and friendly country. The Saudis will be investing in a mega oil refinery plant worth billions of dollars in India. Trade with Arab countries will scale new and unprecedented heights and Modi has invited Arab entrepreneurs to invest in India.

ORF of June 2020 has made a balanced summation of the new prospect of India-Gulf States relationship. It wrote, “The ferment and churning in the Middle East, including the conflicts in Yemen and Syria, severance of ties by Saudi Arabia and some Arab countries with Qatar etc. are likely to have significant implications for India, given that its citizens make up the largest expatriate group in Saudi Arabia (3 million) as well as the region (7-8 million. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has strengthened India’s ties with Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE, Qatar and Israel. This demonstrates a more self-assured approach by India in handling the growing opportunities and challenges in the region.

Due to the large number of workers of Indian origin working in the Middle East, security and stability in the region are of paramount importance for it. Further, the Indian diasporas in the region remit around $35 billion a year. These funds are immensely valuable as they help India manage its current account deficit. Energy is another critical area of engagement. A fifth of India’s oil, and about 65% of gas imports come from countries of the Middle East including Iran, Qatar, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and others.

Uncertainty and volatility in the Middle East region could result in increased insecurity reduced economic activity and stress on the 50% or so of the total inward remittances that India receives from the Gulf.

Any confrontation or uncertainty in the wider Gulf region due to recent developments, including elevation of Mohammad bin Salman as Crown Prince, could engender serious adverse implications for India. Beyond a point, India cannot stay aloof. Given the range, expanse and depth of India’s interests and its rapidly expanding political, economic and strategic profile, sooner or later India will have to get more vigorously engaged in dealing with developments in this crucial region. In the coming years, India will have to adopt a more hands-on policy in any security crisis or economic upheaval that may strike the region because its security, economic well-being and energy needs are closely interlinked with this region. India enjoys good relations with all countries in the region. That should facilitate India playing a more agile and vigorous role in the region.”

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