NEW DELHI Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Saudi Arabia on Sunday is part of a diplomatic effort to put pressure on arch rival Pakistan by forging ties with some of Islamabad's closest allies, Indian ruling party and government officials said.
Modi is expected to sign trade agreements, including contracts to secure investment for infrastructure projects, and offer security and military cooperation, such as training and joint exercises, the officials said.
The Indian premier's visit is just over seven months after he travelled to another Pakistan ally, the United Arab Emirates, and signed a security cooperation agreement that includes regular meetings between top security advisers.
"It's simple. We have to do everything to deal with Pakistan - use economics, strategy and emotional ties to win the hearts of Islamabad's friends," said Ram Madhav, national general secretary of Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan have fought three wars since independence in 1947, two of them over Kashmir. New Delhi has long accused Islamabad of sponsoring a separatist movement and militancy in the Himalayan region. Pakistan denies the charge and accuses India of occupying Kashmir and fomenting trouble in its restive provinces, like Baluchistan.
New Delhi has been frustrated that often its ties with countries have been coloured by concerns about its relationship with Pakistan. One foreign ministry official said the Saudis tended to bring up Pakistan during discussions with India.
Government officials described Modi’s diplomatic push as an effort to "de-hyphenate" India from Pakistan, especially as New Delhi tries to play a bigger geopolitical role in Asia to counter China's influence.
Stronger relationships with Pakistan’s allies can help India get a more sympathetic hearing on global and regional forums and put pressure on Islamabad to rein in militants.
On Thursday, Saudi Arabia and the United States imposed joint sanctions targeting the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group blamed for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai.
In Washington on Friday, where Modi was attending a summit on nuclear security, Indian government spokesman Vikas Swarup welcomed the move.
"Countries working against terror entities - particularly entities that have targeted India repeatedly - is I think a welcome development," he told reporters.
Until now, India’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has been driven primarily by trade and the Indian diaspora in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is India's top energy supplier and home to more than 3.5 million Indian expatriates.
Over the past few years, there has been some cooperation on security between the two countries, with Riyadh deporting four most wanted fugitives to India.
Modi will look to broaden those ties, with one foreign ministry official saying healthcare, education, religious tourism and labour reforms would also be key talking points.
Still, there are limits to what New Delhi can hope to achieve. The relationship between Pakistan and the Saudis goes back decades, based in their shared Sunni Muslim heritage.
Saudi Arabia has long been a source of financial aid for Islamabad. In 2014, the Saudis gave Pakistan $1.5 billion as a "gift" to shore up its foreign reserves.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spent time in political exile in Saudi Arabia in the 2000s, after he was ousted in a military coup.
But Indian officials said the timing was right for Modi’s visit, as relations between Riyadh and Islamabad enter a rough patch.
Pakistan declined to provide ships, aircraft and troops to the Saudi-led fight to halt Iranian-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen last year. It has also sought to avoid taking sides in the escalating dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
"Pakistan knows that relations with Saudi have come to a low. That doesn't mean that India can fill that gap," said Zahid Hussain, a former newspaper editor in Pakistan. "But certainly this is part of Modi's diplomatic offensive in the region."
(Additional reporting by Doug Busvine in NEW DELHI, Asad Hashim and Mehreen Zahra-Malik in ISLAMABAD and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; Editing by Nick Macfie and Grant McCool)
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