External Affairs

India’s Many Diplomatic Challenges in Saudi Arabia

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A street scene in Saudi Arabia. Credit: Ammar Shaker Wikipedia Commons

A street scene in Saudi Arabia. Credit: Ammar Shaker, Wikipedia Commons

The formal announcement that Ahmad Javed, currently the police commissioner of Mumbai, will be the next Indian Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, opens up new opportunities for the promotion of India’s interests in the Kingdom and in West Asia in general, in a national and regional environment that faces extraordinary challenges in the shape of widespread cleavages,  wanton destruction and human suffering. Saudi Arabia is at the heart of most of regional contentions.

India’s ties with Saudi Arabia have been complex at best: after a short period of excellent relations in the 1950s and 1960s, when Nehru bonded politically and emotionally with rulers Saud and Faisal, there was a lull in bilateral ties as we went our separate ways in the Cold War, and the Kingdom moved close to Pakistan in both political and military areas. But economic ties flourished as Saudi Arabia slowly became the principal supplier of oil to India and also the major employer of Indian nationals as professionals and blue collar workers. The Holy Cities of Mecca and Madinah welcomed thousands of Indians for the annual hajj and umrah pilgrimages, with Indians constituting the second or the third largest national congregation at the hajj.

Difficult decade

The 1990s were difficult for both sides. The Kingdom had to deal with emerging domestic dissent amidst the first Gulf War and the US-led “dual containment” policies against Iraq and Iran. It also experienced the first consequences of the Afghan jihad when Saudi jihadis started attacking their own country and its leaders, even as King Fahd suffered a stroke, creating some discord within the royal house. The events of 9/11 were a catastrophe for the Kingdom and for Saudi-US relations. India on its part had a succession of relatively unstable minority governments, serious economic crises and widespread domestic discord after the destruction of Babri Masjid.

At the end of the decade, both countries reached out to each other politically: during the visit of External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh to Riyadh in February 2001, the Kingdom made it clear that it valued its ties with India on their own merit and would not view India through the prism of its relations with any other country. Since then, political and economic ties have continued to flourish, so that Saudi Arabia is India’s number one oil supplier, number four trade partner, the home of India’s largest overseas community (numbering over three million), and increasingly, a major partner in the area of investments and joint ventures.

The visit of King Abdullah to India in 2006 as the chief guest at our Republic Day and the return visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in February 2010 put in place “a new era of a Strategic Partnership” as set out in the subheading of the “Riyadh Declaration” signed by the two leaders. The two countries immediately became active partners in combatting extremism and terrorism, exchanging real time and actionable intelligence. This ended once and for all the widespread belief in India that Saudi Arabia was actually a fomenter of extremism in India. There is little doubt that the attack on Mumbai in November 2008 made it clear to Saudi policy-makers that Pakistan was both the nursery and sanctuary of jihad, and that much of this activity was backed by sections of the state order.

However, now, while bilateral ties remain solid, the region has thrown up a number of unprecedented challenges. The Arab Spring in early 2011, which saw the fall of several Arab leaders and the resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a political player in the region, were all a matter of deep concern for the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia feared that  these dramatic developments would ignite demand for reform at home, even as they would leave Iran as the paramount power in West Asia. The Kingdom responded with new vigor and determination to what it saw as an existential threat: it demonized Iran for its hegemonic aspirations, and shaped its counter-assault on a sectarian basis. This led it to seek regime change in Syria, hoping that, with a more amenable Sunni government in Damascus and the choking of support to the Hezbollah in Lebanon, the balance of power in West Asia would be restored to its advantage.

Syrian conflict

While the conflict in Syria has wreaked extensive death and destruction, it has not provided an outright winner. Now that Russia has entered the Syrian conflict on the side of Bashar Al Assad, the likelihood of regime change is remote. But, even as the fight in Syria drags on, Saudi Arabia has opened a new battle front in Yemen, where it is engaged in a bitter conflict with the Houthi militants whom it sees as another “Shia” enemy and surrogate of Iran.

While the wars in Syria and Yemen remain inconclusive, the breakdown of state order in these two countries has opened the door to the entry of a variety of armed militia, most of them with jihadi orientation. These include in both countries the local affiliates of Al Qaeda as also a new and more brutal force, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has firmly established itself across large parts of Iraq and Syria and has carved some space in Yemen, while its adherents have also attacked targets in the Kingdom itself. There are now worrying reports that in its desperate desire to destroy its enemies in Syria and Yemen, Saudi Arabia has allied itself with Al Qaeda affiliates in both countries where these two lethal forces are engaged in much of the ground fighting.

In this environment of fratricidal conflict, all is not well within the Saudi royal family; for the first time in several decades, this bastion of stability, moderation and wise counsel gives the impression of a deeply divided house. Full political, military and economic power seems to be vested in a 29 year-old prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the favorite child of his old and ailing father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz.

This inexperienced prince is now leading his country in two wars, has set the Kingdom in a state of sectarian confrontation against Iran, and is presiding over an economy battered by a 60 percent fall in oil prices. Within the country, the state authorities are confronting jihadi elements,  a seriously disgruntled Shia community, and the unfulfilled aspirations of their youth, deeply demoralized by the fact their country seems to be on the wrong side of nearly every issue in the global debate — constitutionalism, political participation, human rights, and sensitivity to women and minorities.

The new Indian ambassador to the Kingdom  will have to navigate in these treacherous waters of domestic and regional contentions emerging from the Saudi-Iran divide. For India, this situation is fraught with serious concern; India obtains the bulk of its energy from the Gulf, which is also a major economic partner and the home of eight million nationals who send home $ 35 billion annually.  Being a “free rider” in this region on the back of security provided by the United States is no longer possible since the US has made clear its reluctance to intervene militarily in regional conflicts; it has in fact encouraged the idea that other nations that benefit from ties with this region play a more active role to promote its security.

This is where the government in Delhi will need to shape a robust diplomatic initiative to bring peace to this region, in tandem with other Asian countries similarly dependent on Gulf security —  China, Japan and Korea. While all of them have some differences with each other and collectively have no experience of discussing security issues in other regions, they will need to to be bold, creative and imaginative to cope with this unprecedented challenge to their interests. Once the vision and strategy have been shaped, the Indian ambassador will be at the heart of seeing the initiative through with his Asian colleagues and his Saudi interlocutors in Riyadh. This will be a daunting challenge in which failure is not an option.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

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  • ashok759

    There has been speculation that King Salman, reportedly suffeing from Alzheimer’s, may be changed by the collective wisdom of the royal family. Women voting in KSA is a small but very hopeful sign. At the present rate of fuel burn, Saudi Arabia’s foreign exchange reserves will be gone in five or six years; the Russians are preparing for an extended period of oil around $ 40. The Kingdom’s best hope for the future lies in healing the Shia – Sunni divide and not being such a vigorous exporter of its version of Islam. Long after the oil and princes are gone, ordinary Saudis will have to make a living.