Strength of India-Saudi ties will depend on mutual interests, not homilies on terror, ‘hugplomacy’ or admonition of Pakistan

  • Conditions exist for a strong bilateral partnership based on shared interests and quid pro quo

  • India’s objective is to make Pakistan refrain from using terror as a foreign policy tool

  • Ultimately, the convergence of mutual interest may change the geopolitical reality

Much has been made of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s protocol-breaking gesture of hugging the visiting Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) while receiving him at the airport on Wednesday. The Congress jumped on to it, interpreting it as some sort of an endorsement by the prime minister of Pakistan’s heinous crime. The logic apparently is that since MbS was canoodling with Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan the day before in Islamabad and promising investments worth $20 billion in its economy (not to speak of singing Pakistan’s tune in the joint statement) hugging MbS is tantamount to insulting the memory of jawans killed in the car bomb attack orchestrated by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).

Politicians will say what they must, but some commentators have taken great umbrage at Modi’s gesture which they have interpreted as a blatantly immoral act because MbS has the “blood of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in his hands”. One article in Firstpost argued that Modi should have refrained from embracing him in light of the Khashoggi incident and also because Saudi Arabia is widely acknowledged to be the global sponsor of Wahhabi brand Islamist terror.

 Strength of India-Saudi ties will depend on mutual interests, not homilies on terror, ‘hugplomacy’ or admonition of Pakistan

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Narendra Modi in New Delhi. Twitter @MEAIndia

On balance, perhaps the prime minister should have avoided embracing the Saudi crown prince, but a careful look at the footage shows that it was MbS who extended his hands and the prime minister refusing it at that stage would have been plain rude, considering the fact that he is known for hugging world leaders. But perhaps we are missing the forest for the trees by focusing too much on body language to define bilateral ties on the cusp of a close strategic partnership. To restrict the scope of India-Saudi Arabia ties within the ambit of energy security or equation with Pakistan would be a criminal mistake of the kind both nations cannot afford. And to make morality the fulcrum of foreign policy is the kind of mistake India did at the early stages of its journey as an independent nation at a great cost to own interests.

Conditions exist for a strong bilateral partnership based on shared interests and quid pro quo, and the trajectory of Indian economy coupled with Saudi Arabia’s need to shift away from a purely oil-based economy should eventually make for a mutually beneficial relationship, unlike the client-state dynamic between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Given this reality, we should not spend too much time on who hugged whom, or did not. After all, foreign policy is defined by a nation’s self-interest, not moral posturing. Had that been the case, China wouldn’t have thrown a perennial spanner in Indian efforts in designating Masood Azhar as a global terrorist under the United Nations, or the US wouldn’t have sidelined India (and even the elected Afghanistan government) while holding talks with the Taliban and Pakistan to end an ‘unwinnable war’.

It is too much to expect Saudi Arabia to pivot away or publicly chide Pakistan because it is complicit in multiple terror attacks on Indian soil. Such expectations may have arisen in India because of two reasons. One, the crown prince’s visit to Pakistan coincided with the worst attack on Kashmir by Pakistan-backed terrorists. MbS came to India soon after, but not before taking a detour of Riyadh to avoid ‘hyphenating’ the tour in deference to Indian sensibilities. India was perhaps expecting the India-Saudi joint statement to reflect at least part of the anger and frustration felt by the people instead of anodyne statements against terrorism.

Two, growing slowly confident of its economic expansion and getting used to be taken seriously in the global comity of nations, India perhaps expects bilateral relationships to reflect that new reality. ‘If Saudis want to court us, they must respect our interests and bring pressure on Pakistan over whom they wield considerable influence,’ goes the new thinking.

It is not an unreasonable expectation, but perhaps the modalities of it need to change. India’s objective is to make Pakistan refrain from using terror as a foreign policy tool against it. If New Dehli wants Riyadh — by virtue of its leverage over Islamabad —  to force a change in Pakistan’s behaviour, that strategy has a better chance of success if Saudi Arabia takes the private route in convincing Islamabad instead of handing it a public admonition. It is also unreasonable for India to expect Saudi Arabia to abandon its historical, theological, security and even familial ties with Islamabad even if it wants to deepen its ties with New Delhi.

There is also the question of leverage. As ORF fellow Kabir Taneja wrote in The Wire, “New Delhi is not yet in any position to leverage its offerings in order to convince Riyadh to pivot away from Pakistan. India’s diplomatic levers at play in West Asia that allow it to have good relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel alike, the three poles of power at loggerheads with each other in the region, gives next to no precedence to Saudi Arabia to bend over backwards for New Delhi over Pakistan.”

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has no strategic compulsion in using Pakistan as a containment strategy against India — unlike the Chinese — so a betterment of ties with New Delhi and creation of new opportunities for its oil-based economy may be a more convincing logic for the Saudis to ‘act’ against Pakistan than any argument posed by India.

The India-Saudi joint statement hints at the new opportunities in the fields of “infrastructure, mining, energy including renewables, food security and technology transfer, and to further consolidate cooperation in the areas of skilled human resources in information technology, electronics and telecommunications.”

The signing of five MoUs in the fields of National Investment and Infrastructure Fund, tourism, housing, enhancing bilateral investments and exchange for audio visual programme strikes the right notes.

It was also interesting to note in the joint statement of the veiled reference to China and the pledge of working together “with other Indian Ocean Rim Countries for enhancing maritime security, vital for the security and prosperity of both countries and safe passage for international trade.” The reference to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, that is now at the receiving end of a global backlash, was also evident in the lines where both nations “with regards to regional connectivity projects”, “agreed that they should be based on international law including respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.”

Much has been made of the lines on terrorism and whether they refer to Pakistan, Iran or both. There has likely been a quid pro quo as is the norm in such statements and it is pointless to go into the text, much of which has been plain lifted from the document issued by both countries in 2016 when Modi was in Riyadh. The pointed reference to Pulwama, however, indicates the willingness of the Saudi delegation to strike a balancing act.

Notwithstanding the joint statement or the ‘hugging’, the realities of the bilateral relationship should dictate outcomes. While ties with Riyadh remain important for India in terms of energy security and huge expatriate population (not to speak of bilateral trade where at $28 billion Saudi stands as India’s fourth-largest partner), for the House of Saud this relationship is important in more ways than one. In expanding its economy beyond oil, Indian reluctance to tie foreign policy with moral posturing, in terms of being a better destination for investment and India’s relationship with the key players in West Asia, Riyadh too will act in self interest, as Brookings Fellow Tanvi Madan pointed out on Twitter. Ultimately, it is the convergence of mutual interest that may change the geopolitical reality of this volatile region.

Updated Date: Feb 21, 2019 19:20:19 IST