India-Saudi Arabia relations: An appraisal

(Written on March 4, 2010 by K.N. Pandita)

Inveterate critics did not fail to find fault with Prime Minister’s recent interaction with his Saudi counterparts in Riyadh. Unable to catch him on the wrong foot – if at all there was anything by that  name – the opposition raised ruckus on junior minister Shahshi Tharoor’s minor departure from a diplomat’s usual practice of mincing words.

Cut and dried evaluation of Indo-Saudi relations is usually fraught with contradictions. Various conflicting factors are at play making quick assessment only fallible. Saudi is an autocratic monarchy, heavily conditioned by its theocratic pre-eminence in global strategy and the patriarchic profile of the kingdom among the Muslim states and masses. On the other hand, India is a secular democracy where the government is answerable to the people for its actions and policies. Consequently, it requires astute statesmanship on both sides to conduct bilateral dialogue on an even keel without jeopardizing respective national interests.  

Our strategic relations with Saudi Kingdom had been adversely affected by latter’s close ties with Pakistan. Pakistani army contingent comprises the elite bodyguard of the King Saud’s ruling house. Saudis never contradicted having underwritten financial support to Pakistan’s nuclear enterprise. It supported Pakistan’s stand on Kashmir conflict during 1971 war.

On the other hand, India, as an ally of the erstwhile Soviet Union during the cold war period did not condemn Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and maintained neutrality during the gulf War of 1990-91.

Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was an event of far-reaching consequences for India’s relations with the Islamic world in general but with the Saudi in particular. Saudis as the custodians of the holiest centre of Islamic religion rightly thought it incumbent upon them to save Muslims – the believers in Allah – from the stranglehold of atheists (kafirs). This resulted in the most bizarre and historic trilateral cooperation among the governments and intelligence establishments of three countries, namely the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. In the history of international perfidious espionage, there is no parallel to the secrecy and efficiency with which three notorious intelligence czars carried out their mission of subterfuge in Afghanistan. The mujahideen, now turned Taliban, are the product of that conspiracy hatched by the triumvirate of Robert Gates, Prince al-Turki and General Hamid Gul.

Saudi monarchy had every reason to stick to its Wahhabi ideological lever for its own survival especially when simultaneous with Afghan crisis Iran’s Ayatollahs had mounted direct attack on their claim of being the frontline custodians of the interest of Muslim ummmah. The Saudi kingdom was to taste Islamic terror much before it spilled over to other parts of the world.

Riyadh lost no time in refurbishing its Sunni Muslim constituency world-wide, including Kashmir where the sister of the monarch, closely linked to Saudi intelligence chapter, stayed in the house of a well-known houseboat owner and businessman in Rajbagh for nearly years (1980-82) promoting her secret mission. That Saudis played a constructive role in normalizing strained relations between the National Conference and Jamat-e Islami in the aftermath of attacks on Jamatis following the execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto is a story now known to all. Sheikh Abdullah chartered an airplane to take his entire family on umrah to Saudi Arabia and at the same time thank the Saudi monarch for bringing about rapprochement back home.
                                           
But conditions changed rapidly after the end of cold war and the implosion of the Soviet Union.  In a newly unfolded political scenario, the most dangerous enemy of the Saudi monarchy and the strength of Islamic faith, namely communism, had been buried, Wahhabi upsurge had successfully neutralized “export of ayatollah-brand “Islamic revolution”, and twin-cities of Islam had emerged triumphant as the decisive factor in Islamic politics and strategies …

Having fortified its position politically and strategically Saudi Arabia stumbled on a new role for itself in regional and international strategies.  It was buttressed by oil diplomacy now crucial to the world economy in general but to developing economies in particular. Two Asian giants, China and India were in great need of energy sources to move forward along the path of industrial and technical development. Saudi is the world largest supplier of oil.

On the other hand, both China and India, responding to the pragmatism of current situation, moved away from Russian sphere of influence and chartered their new paths for economic, industrial and technological advancement. Riyadh and New Delhi both realized that cooperation in new environments was inevitable as well as desirable. The official visit of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz to New Delhi in January 2006, where he was entertained as the guest of honour on India’s Republic Day, saw the signing of Delhi Declaration in which, among other things, the Saudi monarch recognized the threat of terrorism to peace and stability in the region.

9/11 indirectly brought US pressure on Riyadh when it was found that some religious extremist organizations functioning in different parts of the world received cash doles from the gulf kingdom where they had their premiers. The ar-Rabita had patronized organizations and institutions that now looked beyond the role played by the mujahideen. The dream of world Islamic caliphate began haunting these premiers. Thus as the US brought pressures on Riyadh to choke the funding sources of terrorist groups, freeze their deposits and curtail their activities and operations, the monarchy thought that time was ripe to wriggle out of Western and American  monopolizing grip and seek alternative economic and commercial space. Hence came to fore the ‘Look East’ strategy.

It was in pursuance of this strategy that King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz had conducted a tour of four South East Asian countries including China and India in 2006. Finding economic and commercial depth for his country eastward was the main purpose of the visit. And the visit of Indian prime minister to Riyadh on 27 February 2010 in response has to be understood in the light of this historical background.

As a mark of goodwill gesture, when New Delhi assured Riyadh that it seriously wanted normalization of relations with Pakistan and addressing grievances of people in Kashmir, Riyadh indicated its willingness to support India’s request for observer status in the OIC.  India had first tried with Iran but finding Teheran very belligerent towards the US, she changed stance.

Undoubtedly energy is the driving force behind Indo-Saudi friendly relations. India is the fourth largest recipient of Saudi crud oil. It is expected that in next twenty years crude imports from Saudi will double. Export of Saudi crude oil to India, for which the Saudis made a commitment of uninterrupted supply, is the jugular vein of Indo-Saudi trade relationship. When India voted against Iran’s nuclear programme in IAEA, Tehran reneged on its oil commitments to India. But the Saudis proved dependable friends.

Interestingly, Saudi oil flow to India was a mere trickle in 2006 when King Abdullah, had embarked on his landmark visit to New Delhi to launch his path-breaking “Look East” policy of engaging the powerful emerging economies of Asia in Saudi Arabia’s quest to reduce its dependence on oil through economic diversification. The visit of the Saudi monarch in 2006 had resulted in his country replacing the UAE as India’s number one crude oil resource, with exports jumping from $500 million to $23 billion in 2008. Today, Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth largest trade partner with bilateral trade being valued at over $25 billion. Indian investments in Saudi Arabia have also increased significantly. There are over 550 small and medium Indian enterprises in the Kingdom with a total value of more than $2.5 billion.

Today there are nearly 2 million Indians engaged in developmental enterprises in Saudi Arabia and they constitute the largest expatriate community. Foreign remittances amount to nearly 4 billion dollars annually. In turn, the Kingdom is the largest source of crude oil for India, meeting 20 percent of India’s oil imports.

Indian opposition raised question about the Prime Minister asking the Saudis to impress upon Pakistan that she must wind up terrorist camps on her soil working against India. Unfortunately, the deeper nuances of Prime Minister raising the issue with the Saudis have been missed. Saudi – Pak relationship is far deeper than what we know of. It is well known that proliferation of Saudi money to Indian religious schools (madrassahs) numbering anything between 8000 and 40000 has become catalyst to the growth of salafi radical movement in India. It has taken advantage of India’s liberal political environment. Deviating from its old secular and nationalist attitude, the Ahle- Hadith have pandered to salafi thought and inducted radical curricula for the inmates of the madrassahs. Liberal Saudi funding has gone to mosques, madrassahs and publishing houses promoting salafi ideology. Saudi scholarships are made available to Indian students for studying religion in Saudi institutions with outright salafi orientation.  On their return these students-mullas preach the same ideology into which their indoctrination has been made. The returnees take on themselves to exploit the susceptibilities of younger generations on Indian Muslims. Transfer of Saudi money through hawala system has been found as the means of providing financial support to the radical organizations and activities without being detected by sleuths.

 In this entire unhealthy and anti-national maneuvering, Pakistani ISI has been grabbing all available opportunities to destabilize relations with India and disrupt peace effort in the region. It was therefore, in fitness of things that the Prime Minister asked the Saudi monarch to draw Pakistan’s attention to the fact that continuation of anti-India terrorism in one form or the other on Pakistani soil does not help stabilize peace in the region.
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, University of Kashmir).

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