External Affairs

What Narendra Modi Must Do in Riyadh

India should help prepare a platform for dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran to address issues that divide them and foment mistrust


Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in Riyadh on April 2 and 3, a little over six years after the historic visit of his predecessor, Manmohan Singh.

Singh’s was the first visit of an Indian prime minister to Saudi Arabia after nearly thirty years. It came in the wake of the Saudi ruler’s visit to India four years earlier, which had itself taken place 51 years after the last visit of the Saudi monarch. But, beyond chronology, Singh’s visit was significant because the two countries, which had little political interaction till then, pledged to secure a “strategic partnership”, with substantial political, economic, security and defence content.

A complex history

After Singh’s visit, both sides moved swiftly to put in place intelligence cooperation relating to combatting extremism and violence – thus coming a long way from the time when the kingdom used to turn a blind eye to Pakistan-sponsored jihad and view South Asian affairs through the Pakistani prism, which projected the Kashmir issue as central to the Indo-Pakistan discord. The attack on Mumbai in November 2008 changed this view: it convinced Saudi and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders of the error of their earlier understanding, and to see Pakistan as the nursery and sanctuary of jihad that indiscriminately threatened all regional states.

Much has changed in West Asia since Singh’s visit. Earlier, the region had generally been at peace, with even Al Qaeda having lost much of its allure and firepower. Now, the region is witnessing two ongoing military conflicts, in Syria and Yemen, in both of which Saudi Arabia is a central player. Fearing what it sees as burgeoning Iranian influence across the region and Iran’s recent rehabilitation in regional affairs after the nuclear agreement, the kingdom has structured a confrontation with Iran on the basis of a robust mobilisation of the sectarian divide. At the same time, jihad has obtained a new efficacy in the shape of the depredations of the Islamic State, which has firmly established itself as a proto-state across Iraq and Syria, and spouts the same sectarian venom that many clerics and social media users do across the region.

High stakes for India

The regional scenario has been further complicated by two other factors. The first of these is the dramatic fall in oil prices, which has deprived the Gulf producers of much-needed income. The second consists of the hints of discord within the Saudi royal family due to the untrammelled political, military and economic power enjoyed by one young prince, the 29-year old deputy crown prince, Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

This scenario of confrontation and conflict impinges very seriously on India’s interests in several ways. It places in jeopardy India’s energy security and its economic interests, given that India obtains the bulk of its oil from the region, which is also a major trade and investment partner. Above all, the deteriorating security situation endangers the continued employment and even the physical wellbeing of the eight million-strong Indian community in the kingdom, which remits over $35 billion to its mother country annually.

In fact, India has such high stakes in regional stability that it just does not have the luxury of sitting on the fence while relations between the two Islamic giants slide from confrontation to conflict.

The need for India to lead

An active role in the promotion of regional peace and security thus has to be the centrepiece of Modi’s diplomatic foray to Riyadh.

At the BRICS Summit at Fortaleza, Brazil, in July 2014, Modi had already expressed his concerns about the regional situation and the need for an external activist role to address regional security issues. He said: “The region stretching from Afghanistan to Africa is experiencing turbulence and conflict… This impacts us all. Remaining mute spectators to countries being torn up in this manner can have grave consequences… The situation in West Asia poses a grave threat to regional and global peace and security.”

Later, in May 2015, speaking at Tsinghua University in Beijing, the prime minister called for Sino-Indian cooperation to address shared security concerns in West Asia: “We source a large part of our energy from the region that faces instability and an uncertain future. India and China conduct their international commerce on the same sea-lanes. The security of the sea-lanes is vital for our two economies; and our cooperation is essential to achieve it.”

The recent moves toward a ceasefire and peace negotiations in both Yemen and Syria suggest that, in spite of its bellicose posture, Saudi Arabia has recognised the futility of seeking to achieve its maximalist agenda in the two countries through military means.

However, it is not able to reach out to Iran on its own: there is just too much distrust and ill will. With the US no longer interested in getting further embroiled in the West Asian imbroglio (which it has done so much to create) and having lost most of its credibility in the Arab Gulf countries, the stage is set for new, more credible and effective role-players to enter the complex arena of West Asia.

There is little doubt that an Indian lead role to promote regional security, in partnership with other similarly placed Asian countries such as China, Japan and Korea, will be welcomed in the region and will ultimately be most effective in promoting stability.

This can be realised in two stages. First, Modi must prepare the platform for dialogue between the kingdom and Iran to address issues that divide them and foment mistrust. Second, as mutual confidence increases, he must promote the realisation of a regional cooperative security arrangement that would include all regional and extra-regional nations with an interest in West Asian security. It is only on this basis that West Asia can find peace and become capable of combatting the twin scourges of sectarianism and jihad that threaten to encompass the entire swathe of territory from Pakistan to the Mediterranean and across Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa.

India’s commitment to this diplomatic initiative would need to be spelled out by Modi in clear terms in Riyadh as the natural evolution of the “strategic partnership” envisioned in the “Riyadh Declaration” of February 2010.

This initiative will have to find an echo in Tehran soon thereafter. Regardless of the denials that emanate from the Islamic Republic, the GCC states are convinced that Iran is “interfering” in their domestic politics and has a robust “hegemonic” agenda that it is pursuing through the Shia communities in different Arab countries and the sectarian “militia” that it has at its command. Clearly, the chasm across the Gulf is deep and even intractable, since Iran’s ambitions are seen as posing an “existential” threat to the GCC nations, particularly now that Iran has been freed from the shackles of international sanctions.

On the positive side, India and its Asian partners enjoy a high level of respect in the region, based, in India’s case, on centuries’ old, uninterrupted connectivity of different kinds that has shaped the ethos of the peoples of the Indian Ocean and imparted to them a high level of mutual cultural comfort. Again, the fact that the crucial long-term interests of the Asian countries are dependent on regional stability should concentrate the minds of the Asian leaders and diplomats and impart to their peace-making mission a special vigour and creativity, and encourage them to cooperate among themselves for the common interest of all of Asia.

For, only through a peaceful West Asia can the Asian renaissance and the Asian Century be realised.

Talmiz Ahmad is the former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

  • ashok759

    Healing the Shia – Sunni divide or at least taking the confrontationist edge off it would be a big step forward in resolving the many crises that are plaguing Islamic societies and their relationship with the world, most notably terrorism. India, with large populations from both sects, should attempt to play a harmonising role.

    • Sujad Syed

      Absolutely right, sir!

  • DariyaSophia

    While I respect the former Ambassador Ahmad tremendously, is a focus on “twin issues of sectarian issues and jihad” really what we need to focus on? The region’s people see ethnicity – mainly language and local custom – not “sect”, as their primary form of self-identification. The “sectarian conflict” is more smoke and mirrors, when the real issue has always been people’s inability to provide for their families in conflict zones. It should be twin scourges of jihad and human rights abuses on the table, couched in softer language. The way to address these is working towards treaties that put large number of minimum wage work near conflict areas to draw people away; plus a radical suggestion: to guarantee women work, whether at home or in the service sectors. The way to handle these crises is not by taking incremental baby steps, but by identifying with the groups that are most marginalised – women in particular – and getting them behind their own governance issues, quickly. Of course, Saudi Arabia will probably disagree with all of the above, crooked as they are. That doesn’t mean Indian policy should accommodate them and become crooked too.

  • Sujad Syed

    Mr. Ahmad, you think it will be done in Riyadh, when serious efforts are being made to divide, sub divide Muslims at home!