Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in Riyadh on Saturday for a two-day high-profile visit to Saudi Arabia. Even before Modi’s arrival, however, the hosts have already set the template for the high diplomacy to be played out in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia, where Modi will be on Saturday and Sunday, has sent a very powerful signal by imposing sanctions on Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Al Qaeda, the Taliban and four individuals with terror links across Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. These entities and individuals include those who bankrolled LeT chief Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, the mastermind of 26/11 Mumbai attack.
Riyadh and the US jointly announced this decision in Washington while Modi was there to attend the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) meeting. The two countries, particularly the latter, appear to have deliberately chosen the moment in Washington where heads of over 50 countries had gathered to convey a warning to Pakistan. The message is that even its old allies are getting impatient with Pakistan’s policy of brinkmanship on the issue of terrorism.
Pakistan had certainly been aware that it was in for a rebuke. That’s why Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chose to stay away from such an important meeting of world leaders.
Modi will also take up the issue regarding Pathankot mastermind Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar. He will be telling his hosts how disappointed India was with China for having blocked the UN's bid to ban Azhar at the behest of Pakistan, one day after Saudi acted against LeT and its operatives.
Modi will impress upon Saudi leaders the need to put further pressure on Pakistan to act against JeM and Azhar and to send a powerful message across that cross-border terrorism must stop.
Saudi Arabia's keenness to partner India in a fight against terrorism is predicated on its own experience of being at the receiving end of terrorism, and a threat perception arising out of global terror networks like Al Qaeda and Islamic State.
Saudi Arabia has taken several steps in enhancing intelligence and security cooperation with India in the recent past. For instance, in June 2012, it deported Zabiuddin Ansari aka Abu Jundal, a terrorist wanted for his involvement in the Mumbai attack, overlooking opposition from Pakistan. Abu Jundal was living in Saudi Arabia on a Pakistani passport.
Many others suspected of involvement in terrorist activities have also been deported to India since then.
It implies that the Saudis mean business. Having looked at their bilateral relations only through the prism of Pakistan, both India and Saudi Arabia had been limiting the possibilities of wider and more meaningful cooperation for a long time. All that has been changing since the last few years.
The security situation in the Arabian Gulf and Middle East, the fluctuations in oil prices, and the gradual withdrawal of the US as a guarantor of security in the region have forced Saudi Arabia to have its own pivot to East.
India, with its historic ties with West Asia, its vast diaspora and growing risk from terror outfits, too realised the futility of confining relations to trade, culture and people-to-people contacts. It needed a hard look at security and strategic dimension of relations.
The ice was broken after the visit of the Saudi king to India in 2004 after five decades. Manmohan Singh’s visit to Riyadh in 2010 began the process of unlocking the potential. During Singh’s visit, the two countries signed the Riyadh Declaration, which envisioned the strategic partnership.
The 26/11 Mumbai attack brought about a sea change in the manner in which Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations looked at the menace of terrorism and the radicalisation of youth. They began reassessing the role of Pakistan and were keen to address India’s concerns.
However, it would be futile to say that Pakistan is not a factor. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan enjoy a relationship of trust, depth, shared Islamic values and culture. India can’t wish it away. Saudi Arabian foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir, during his visit to New Delhi, recently emphasised that Riyadh's relationship with Pakistan stood independent of India and will stay so.
The rise of the Islamic State has further alerted the Gulf leadership to the threat terrorism poses to all and the need to move away from the selective engagement. The danger posed by the IS and the strategy to combat it will also be on top of Modi’s agenda during his stay in Riyadh.
India is lucky that its Muslim youth have been insulated from IS propaganda and recruitment. Less than two-dozen Indians have thus far been reported to have gone to join IS. However, it’s a threat that India can ignore at its own peril.
The IS has been losing ground in Syria and Iraq, forcing the outfit to fan out in other countries and look for other vulnerable areas. Europe is already feeling the heat from IS fighters fleeing Syria and Iraq.
The IS will be looking to spread its tentacles in the subcontinent with renewed vigour. It has got a foothold in Afghanistan. It will be looking to entering into partnerships with Pakistan-based outfits like LeT, JeM and Taliban to target India. However, Modi must be cautious and avoid getting involved into a larger anti-IS war in the Middle East.
Besides Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and India will also engage on Iran. Saudi-Iran relations have nosedived in the recent past. Pakistan has offered to mediate between the two. But given its relations with Iran, India is in a much better position to play the role of peace broker between the Gulf rivals.
Modi has an historic opportunity to unlock India’s potential in West Asia.