India’s Arab sprint

Riyadh and Delhi are quietly drawing closer,acknowledging their many shared concerns

Written by Sanjaya Baru | Published:February 22, 2012 3:23 am

Riyadh and Delhi are quietly drawing closer,acknowledging their many shared concerns

Amidst last week’s focus in the Indian media about a coming conflict between Iran and Israel,not much attention was paid to a historic visit to Saudi Arabia by the defence minister,A.K. Anthony.

Several interesting facts marked Anthony’s path-breaking travel across the Arabian Sea. First,the visit was the first ever such official visit by an Indian defence minister to the epicentre of the Arab world. Second,it came in response to persistent invitations from the Saudi government. Anthony was unable to make the trip on two earlier occasions when an invitation had been issued,but finally made it after a third call from Riyadh. Third,the defence minister was accompanied not just by diplomats and civilian officials but by three senior defence officials — the vice chief of army staff,the deputy chief of naval staff and an air vice marshal. Fourth,Anthony had one-on-one talks with his counterpart Prince Salman and an extended audience with King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

At the end of what has been described as “wide-ranging” talks,India and Saudi Arabia have agreed to set up a joint panel of officials who will together draft a defence cooperation agreement and a “road map” for defence cooperation that would include joint exercises between the three services of the two nations,training and co-production of defence equipment. The militaries and navies of both countries will undertake joint patrolling of the Arabian Sea,fighting sea piracy and disruption to maritime traffic.

For any single visit by a defence minister to another country,and that too,the very first visit announced with little fanfare just 48 hours before the visit occurred,these outcomes are significant. They have raised eyebrows around the world,most importantly in the Middle East and in South Asia. The Arab and Pakistani media seem to have taken greater note of this visit than the Indian media!

For all his low-profile manner,Anthony knows a thing or two both about domestic politics and strategic affairs. He timed his visit well,with an eye on politics at home and developments abroad.

If Iran seeks to meddle in domestic Indian politics by creating disaffection among the Shias of Uttar Pradesh,what better way to counter that by reminding all concerned that while the Shias maybe an important vote bank in UP,they constitute only 10 per cent of Indian Muslims,while the Sunnis account for an overwhelming 90 per cent.

Anthony’s visit would have also reassured the hugely important Malayali community in the Gulf,which has been unnerved by the resentment against expatriate workers in a region where economic disparities have come to the fore in the wake of the so-called “Arab Awakening”. Besieged Arab elites facing the anger of their masses have been tempted to point to foreign workers as the villains taking away jobs from the locals. But the region’s wiser political leadership has resisted such attempts in the knowledge that the Indian community in the Gulf constitutes the economy’s backbone.

As the threat of war looms large over the Gulf,India’s diplomatic activism,with the external affairs minister,S.M. Krishna,visiting Israel,Anthony visiting Saudi Arabia and National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon visiting the recently active Qatar,is clearly aimed both at averting conflict and insuring India against the risks of one if it became inevitable.

India’s main concern is energy security and the security of the Indian community in the region. Already,rising tensions have pushed the price of oil up. Even if hostilities were not to break out,the persistence of raised risk levels will keep oil prices high. Finally,if Iran were to lay mines in the sea as a pre-emptive or provocative act,this would seriously disrupt the movement of oil tankers. Any sustained rise in the price of oil will hit the Indian economy hard.

King Abdullah has,it is reliably learnt,offered cast-iron assurances to Anthony that Saudi Arabia would step in and help both in making more oil available to India and in assuring the safety and security of Indian expatriates in the region.

An interesting aspect of the bilateral understanding reached between Anthony and Prince Salman is that India and Saudi Arabia would also undertake joint research and projects in the field of hydrography,exchanging information on nautical cartography and hydrographic surveys of coastal areas,ports,harbours and designated sea areas. In the near term this would also facilitate de-mining!

The people of India and Arabia have interacted across the waters between them for thousands of years. Omani and Gujarati seafarers were among the earliest and Arabs reached the Kerala coast as traders and teachers,not conquerors. In fact,among all the Muslim communities of the Middle East and Central Asia it is only the Arabs who never sought to conquer India. The Turks,the Persians,and the Central Asians came by land to plunder or rule. The Arabs came by sea to trade and teach.

While history has its limitations in shaping contemporaneous and forward-looking strategic choices,it does shape popular perceptions. What is,however,driving the India- Saudi relationship today is not this benign history but shared concerns about stability and growth in the Arabian Sea littoral and the Gulf.

Saudi Arabia is as concerned about events in Iran as it is about trends in Pakistan. Riyadh’s outreach to New Delhi is also an indicator that the Saudis are worried about what is happening in Pakistan. In this “arc of instability” Riyadh hopes India would be a reliable and credible guarantor of stability.

The writer is director for geo-economics and strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies,and honorary senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research

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