Given that Saudi Arabia is one of Pakistan’s main patrons, is it odd that India’s Prime Minister should be warmly receiving Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in New Delhi only days after the Pulwama terrorist attack?
It may indeed, seem odd that Prime Minister Narendra Modi should hug the Crown Prince on the red carpet when he had just committed to massive investments in Pakistan, and Riyadh and Islamabad had issued a joint statement that not only praised each other “for the achievements and sacrifices made… in the war against terrorism” but also “underlined the need for avoiding politicisation of UN listing regime” — a thinly veiled swipe at India’s attempts to get the Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist Masood Azhar sanctioned under UN Security Council Resolution 1267.
However, no wise country plays zero sum games in foreign policy, especially where powerful players are involved. India has always kept its relationship with Saudi Arabia separate from that country’s relations with Pakistan, and it is, in the long term, much bigger than individual terrorist attacks.
The visit by Crown Prince Mohammed, or MBS as he is known, was part of his long-scheduled three-nation tour — on Thursday, he arrived in Beijing, and was expected to meet with President Xi Jinping during his two-day visit. The tour has been seen as an effort by MBS to repair his image that has been dented badly by the gruesome October 2018 murder of the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Ankara. The Prince, who has been directly linked to the murder, is currently not welcome in any western country. MBS has projected his Pakistan-India-China trip as part of his Vision 2030, which includes a “strategic partnership council” of Saudi Arabia and eight other countries, including India.
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Given the elaborate planning and scheduling that goes into such official visits, India could not have cancelled it without hurting its own interests. His brief return to Saudi after the Pakistan visit for a day before flying to India is being put out as a successful outcome of efforts by the Indian side to de-hyphenate his two visits in South Asia. Ministry of External Affairs managers also projected the absence of a Kashmir mention in the India-Pakistan joint statement.
What then is the precise nature of the India-Saudi Arabia relationship currently?
There has been a steady progress in the bilateral relationship since 2006, when King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud visited India. The two sides signed the landmark Delhi Declaration during that visit, which laid the framework for upgrading ties to the level of “strategic partnership” in 2010, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is India’s fourth largest trading partner, and India is the fourth largest market for Saudi exports. Bilateral trade is in the region of $28 billion, most of it crude oil exports to India, which imports around 19% of its oil requirements from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Arabian oil major Armaco and a partner UAE company had decided to invest half in a planned $ 44 bn in a refinery-cum-petrochemical project in Maharashtra billed as the world’s biggest, but that project is on hold for now as the Shiv Sena has objected to its proposed location in Ratnagiri. The two countries have defence, security and counter-terror cooperation.
India has the world’s third largest Muslim population (after Indonesia and Pakistan), and there is inevitably a religious-cultural aspect to the ties with the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites. Plus, there are more than 2.7 million Indians working in Saudi. The Ministry of External Affairs described Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the kingdom in 2016 as a “turning point” that took the strategic engagement “upward”. Saudi Arabia honoured Modi with its highest civilian honour, the King Abdulaziz Sash. During the MBS visit, the two sides signed MoUs with a potential investment of $ 100 bn, five times more than what he signed up for in Pakistan.
Saudi and Pakistan are aligned, Saudi and Iran are rivals, Pakistan sponsors terrorism in India. The security forces of Iran and India were targeted on consecutive days by two Sunni jihadist groups, each of which has Jaish (Jaish ul-Adl and Jaish-e-Mohammad) in its name. Is there a connection?
The connection, in fact, is Saudi Arabia.
It is well documented that Saudi bankrolled Sunni extremist groups through Pakistan to recruit jihadist fighters for the first Afghan war. The groups fighting India in Kashmir have their origins in this. Jaish-e-Mohammad was set up by Masood Azhar with funds from Taliban and al-Qaeda. And Lashkar-e-Taiba, originated from a group called Markaz Daawa wal Irshad (Centre for Preaching and Guidance), which was formed to fight the Soviet Army in Afghanistan.
Despite the Saudi connections to al-Qaeda and other terror groups, its relations with the US have remained solid. Shia Iran views the US-Saudi-Israel alliance as an existential threat.
The MBS visit to South Asia came in a week in which three significant events took place. First, representatives of 60 nations met at Warsaw for a US-led “Middle-East conference”, which was in reality an “anti-Iran” conference. Germany, France and the EU, which were in the Iran nuclear deal and opposed US President Donald Trump’s decision to break away from it, did not attend. Others sent junior representatives. But there were strong speeches against Iran by both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Second, 27 of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were blown up in Sistan-Balochistan by a “suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive device” (SVBIED). Third, an identical bombing a day later, claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammad, killed 40 CRPF personnel in Kashmir.
After the attack on the IRGC, Iran lashed out at the US and its “allies in the region”. The attack was claimed by a group active on the Pakistan-Iran border called Jaish ul-Adl. The attack marks a new low in relations between Iran and Pakistan. Tehran sees the attack as confirmation that Pakistan has ganged up with Saudi in the regional coalition against it. Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of funding the group and Pakistan of sheltering it. While there is nothing apparent to link Jaish-e-Mohammad and Jaish ul-Adl, both are Sunni extremist groups operating out of Pakistan.
Iran, like India, does not like the emerging US-Taliban “peace agreement” that could leave the Taliban in the driving seat in Afghanistan by the middle of 2019. The Saudis, who back the talks, fear Iran may undermine it. Saudi, along with Pakistan and UAE, participated in one round of talks in Abu Dhabi in December 2018. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and UAE were the only countries that recognised the Taliban government in Afghanistan that lasted from 1996 to 2001.
Why can’t India leverage its excellent individual relations with Iran, Saudi, Israel, and the US to tackle some of its longstanding national security problems, including Pakistan?
Pakistan has complex and difficult relationships with the US and Iran and no relations at all with Israel. Since 2001, the bottom line of US-Pakistan ties is Pakistan’s centrality to the US-led war in Afghanistan. With a huge Shia population of its own, Pakistan is mindful of Iran’s importance, but has provided the battlefield for the Saudi-driven Sunni vs Shia geopolitics of the region. The only country that has more influence over Pakistan than China is Saudi Arabia, but its own irons in regional fires would prevent it from helping India on this front. This is why the MBS visit had to be a balancing act between India and Pakistan.
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