India – Saudi Arabia

  • Category
    World Affairs
  • Published
    28th Feb, 2019

Issue

Context  

  • Mohammed bin Salman’s recent visit to India was seen as a watershed moment in boosting defense and security cooperation.
  • Apart from these two broad themes, it appeared that India and Saudi Arabia are trying to move beyond energy relationships.

About

  • Saudi Arabia has long been an important Indian trade partner.

The Kingdom remains a vital source of energy for India, which imports almost a fifth of its crude oil requirement from Saudi Arabia.

Background

  • For years, the Saudi Arabia-India relationship had always been shadowed by the Kingdom’s close ties with Pakistan.
  • That has changed, while Riyadh retains strong ties to Islamabad, there is no longer an “either-or” element, and the Kingdom has demonstrated geopolitical diversification in its relations with South Asia.
  • The rise of jihadist extremism, the gradual decline of American power, and the rise of China have brought about transformational changes in India’s engagements with the Gulf region.
  • India’s Prime Minister has demonstrated an increased willingness to cooperate with Saudi Arabia on a variety of security issues such as joint military exercises, intelligence sharing, counterterrorism, anti-money laundering, and terror financing.
  • On the face of it, much of the deliberations have been shrouded over “terror talks”: The historic visit of King Abdullah to India in 2006 had laid solid ground for the India-Saudi relationship.
  • The “Delhi Declaration,” signed between the two countries during his visit, stressed that terrorism was a scourge that “the governments would closely and actively cooperate” to fight against.
  • The “Riyadh Declaration” signed in 2010 during then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Saudi Arabia emphasized cooperation on information exchange on terrorism.
  • Enhanced security cooperation has added a new dimension in the bilateral ties between New Delhi and Riyadh.

Analysis

  • Counterterrorism has emerged as a key area of cooperation between the two countries.
  • One cannot forget the fact that the Gulf region was used as a safe haven by India’s many home-grown extremist and terrorists groups, such as the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and the Indian Mujahideen (IM).
  • Due to the large migrant population in the Gulf, frequent visits of South Asian Muslims for economic purposes did not arouse much suspicion among the security agencies
  • But jihadist and terrorist outfits leveraged such opportunities to mobilize funds for terror activities. Saudi Arabian intelligence agencies did not take long to notice this disturbing trend and began acting against these individuals and groups.
  • Another dynamic has been the emergence of the Islamic State, which has spread turmoil and uncertainty in the region. Being a dominant power in the region, Saudi Arabia has been trying to tackle these security challenges.

What is the precise nature of the India-Saudi Arabia relationship?

  • 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 Aramcoand 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.
  • 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.

Is the equation that simple as it seems? 

  • 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.
  • India has stronger ties with both Israel and Iran and looks towards USA and Saudi to meet its energy and security related aspects.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Strengthening of relationships:

  • A milestone happened in 2017, when direct flights between India and Israel became possible following Saudi Arabia giving consent to allow Air India use of its airspace.
  • Since Riyadh and Tel Aviv have no official diplomatic ties, the over flight permission clearly signals Saudi willingness to treat India as a special friend.
  • Mohammed bin Salman has been promoting a forward-looking and non-obscurantist version of Islam.
  • He has expressed his views publicly against terrorism and religious fanaticism, asserting that the Saudi-funded spread of Wahhabism was not the Kingdom’s brainchild.
  • It began only due to requests from Western countries to help them counter the Soviet Union’s ideological encroachment amongst Muslims countries during the Cold War.
  • Energy tradehas traditionally been the foundation of the India-Saudi relationship.
  • The increased focus on security and counterterrorism cooperation points to a maturing relationship that has moved away from a mere energy partnership.

Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) and Invest India:

  • To utilize the investment opportunities in both countries, especially 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.
  • Investments by Indian companies in the Kingdom for domestic and regional market access
  • Coalition on Disaster Resilient Infrastructure
  • India-Saudi Arabia Energy consultations:The two sides agreed to transform the buyer-seller relationship in the energy-sector to strategic partnership focusing on investment and joint ventures in petrochemical complexes.
  • Kingdom’s participation in the India’s Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPRs).
  • Saudi side would join the International Solar Alliance led by India and France.
  • Joint Working Group on Skill Development: two countries can benefit from each other’s core competencies in important fields such as manufacturing, information technology, communications, and programming.
  • To work 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 two sides are focusing on the need for concerted action by the international community against terrorism including through early adoption of the UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism and underlined the importance of comprehensive sanctioning of terrorists and their organizations by the UN.
  • Sorting out the issue of "Iqamah” for the Indian Labour who were stranded in Saudi Arabia for no fault of their own, and resolving this humanitarian issue.

Way forward:

  • As China makes a massive investment in the future of Pakistan with its $60 billion infrastructure investment drive, the geopolitical chessboard in Asia is shifting.
  • A new move is being made on that chessboard: The accelerating strategic ties between India and Saudi Arabia.
  • It’s a move driven firstly by commercial considerations, but one that could contribute significantly to regional stability and prosperity.
  • There have been reports that the Saudi Arabia is planning to get its own nuclear deterrent.
  • If that is the case, then Pakistan is the most logical source for technical expertise.
  • On the Afghanistan negotiations, Qatar has taken the lead for now. But it is unlikely that the Saudis will make an intervention against the Taliban.
  • The India-Saudi Arabia relationship is important for a variety of reasons but New Delhi should be careful not to make convergence on Pakistan and Afghanistan a litmus test for making further progress.

Learning Aid

Practice Question:

Saudi-India ties have mostly revolved around energy diplomacy. How far do you agree that India-Saudi can move past this uni-dimensional relation and create a multi-dimensional convergence zone? Discuss while listing out potential contentious zone faced in this path.

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