Saudi crown prince to visit India in February: MBS' first State visit is opportunity to push warm bilateral to higher level

Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), is planning to visit India as part of his three-nation tour in February. The crown prince's upcoming India visit assumes significance as it will take place in close proximity of the India visit of Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu. It is expected that MBS' first State visit to these shores will herald a new era in the India-Saudi strategic partnership.

His economic, social and religious reforms since becoming crown prince have thrown the Saudi kingdom into a tailspin. The heir apparent to the most powerful throne in the Arab world has often presented himself as reformer to western audiences. His alleged involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October damaged his reformist image. But it seems that the global storm over Khashoggi's brutal killing has already subsided for MBS who has been relentlessly promoting his Vision 2030 economic reform plan — an industrial development program that seeks to create 1.6 million jobs and target investments worth $450 billion over the next decade.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi had met MBS last year in Argentina during the G20 summit, where they reportedly decided to institute a mechanism to facilitate Saudi Arabia's investments in India's energy, technology and food security sectors. It was also reported that the two leaders discussed cooperation in arms manufacturing and Saudi efforts to develop a domestic arms industry.

File image of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

File image of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

Islam serves as an unbroken civilisational bond between India and Saudi Arabia. The annual Haj pilgrimage is an important factor in India-Saudi cultural relations with Indian Muslims forming one of the largest contingents of pilgrims to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. India's large expatiate population has been the backbone of strong social ties between the two countries, with new aspects being added recently as New Delhi is seeking to enhance its engagements with Riyadh through investments opportunities, political contacts and strategic cooperation. Saudi Arabia is India's fourth largest trade partner; it is a major source of energy as India imports a fifth of its crude oil requirement from Saudi Arabia.

Energy needs have long dictated India's approach toward Saudi Arabia, but the rise in Islamist extremism along with a shifting geopolitical scenario has changed this dynamic. The perceived decline of American power and influence in the Persian Gulf has been matched by India's growing engagements with the region. Modi has toured all the major Gulf countries and never concealed his interest in engaging with them economically as well as strategically. Discarding earlier hesitation, the Modi government has demonstrated a particular willingness to cooperate with Saudi Arabia on a variety of security issues such as joint military exercises, intelligence sharing, counter-terrorism, money laundering, terror financing, besides making joint efforts to combat religious extremism.

It needs to be recalled that the visit of King Abdullah to India in 2006 and the visit of former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh to Saudi Arabia in 2010 had laid strong foundations for the India-Saudi relationship. Modi's April 2016 visit to the Kingdom further cemented this burgeoning partnership. During his meeting with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, Modi signed wide-ranging agreements on economic and security cooperation. Modi was also conferred with Saudi Arabia's highest civilian honour, the King Abdulaziz Sash. The bitterness it created for Pakistan's security establishment can be gauged by the fact that Saudi Arabia has never bestowed their highest civilian honour on any Pakistani leader.

As mentioned earlier, the counter-terrorism issue has emerged as a key area of cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is concerned about the rise of Islamist extremism in the region. The Saudi government has been frequently helping India apprehend key terror suspects. During Modi's visit, both the countries vehemently condemned terrorism and decided to enhance their counter-terrorism cooperation. Modi and the Saudi king emphasised the need to further cement bilateral strategic engagement, including in the areas of security and defence cooperation. The joint statement stated the need to increase "exchange of visits of ships and aircraft and supply of arms and ammunition and their joint development".

Last year, direct flights between India and Israel became a reality only after Saudi Arabia agreed to allow Air India use of its airspace, which also indicated a clear warming of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Since Riyadh and Tel Aviv have no official diplomatic ties, like much of the Arab world, the granting of over-flight facilities undoubtedly signals Saudi willingness to treat India as a special friend.

The rise of terrorism and extremism has been a matter of particular concern for both India and Saudi Arabia. Since the emergence of the Islamic State, the West Asian region has been witnessing chaos, turmoil and political uncertainty with the emergence of new security challenges. Being a major player in regional geopolitics, Saudi Arabia continues to experience internal as well as regional security challenges.

Saudi Arabia's strong ties with Pakistan and India’s close links with Iran have affected India-Saudi relationship. It may be noted that when Pakistan experienced financial turbulence recently, Riyadh was the only capital Prime Minister Imran Khan could think of visiting; Saudi Arabia did not disappoint Pakistan either, offering a whopping $3 billion bailout package to stabilise Pakistan's financial situation. Saudi Arabia is also considering setting up a $10 billion oil refinery at Pakistan's Gwadar port overlooking the Indian Ocean.

While Saudi Arabia does not feel comfortable with India's growing ties with Iran, New Delhi expects Riyadh to restrain its ally, Islamabad, from allowing its territory being used by terrorists.

Pakistan-based terrorist organisations have often focused on working people in Saudi Arabia for recruitment and training to be used for terror activities. Moreover, India's intelligence agencies have been concerned over enhanced funding for madrassas from either Wahhabi groups in Saudi Arabia or through the FIF in Pakistan. The Modi government cannot push under the carpet its growing concerns over the Saudi influence in radicalisation among a section of India's youth. More often than not, the Gulf returnees are blamed for the rise of extremism in some Indian states.

In March 2018, MBS had conceded that the Saudi-funded spread of Wahhabism began because of requests from Saudi Arabia's western allies to help counter the Soviet Union during the Cold War through investments in overseas madrassas for preventing ideological encroachment in Muslim countries by the Soviet Union. MBS also added that now the funding for madrassas comes mostly from Saudi-based foundations rather than the government. Therefore, India must raise this issue with MBS who has been promoting a forward-looking and tolerant version of Islam.

The political leadership of India and Saudi Arabia has been focusing on the positive areas in their bilateral relationship. The increased focus on defence and counter-terrorism cooperation suggests an increasingly maturing relationship that has moved beyond energy partnership. With Riyadh aiming to diversify its national economy that was hit hard by the 2014 slump in oil prices, Saudi firms are eager to enter the Indian market; the economic dimension of the bilateral relationship is poised to diversify and expand.

Trade and commerce, particularly in the field of energy, have traditionally been the spine of the India-Saudi relationship. During the past decade, there has been a manifest shift in India's approach to the Kingdom since regional geopolitical realities such as China's rising assertiveness, Iran's isolation and Afghan chaos are not likely to change anytime soon.

While recent achievements in security and intelligence cooperation have been outstanding, new areas of cooperation are being explored between New Delhi and Riyadh to further strengthen the relationship. Growing India-Saudi ties serve as an unmistakable reminder that international relations are based on national interest, and not on religious ideology.

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Updated Date: Jan 31, 2019 13:45:04 IST

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