Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has so far received only three visiting heads of state at the Delhi airport — President George Bush, President Vladimir Putin and King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia. That simple fact should have placed Dr Singh’s much-delayed visit to Riyadh last week in perspective.
Saudi Arabia is not just about Islam, oil and dollars. It is India’s civilisational neighbour, a long-time trading partner, now a strategic partner and, as a member of the G-20, an important pole in the emerging multi-polar global order.
In July 2005, Dr Singh chaired a meeting of the Prime Minister’s Trade and Economic Relations Committee (TERC) which resolved to launch what was then dubbed India’s “Look West Policy”. The starting point of that policy was the launch of negotiations for an India-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) free trade agreement and a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with individual member countries of the GCC, that is, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Dr Singh told the TERC: “The Gulf region, like South-East and South Asia, is part of our natural economic hinterland. We must pursue closer economic relations with all our neighbours in our wider Asian neighbourhood. India has successfully pursued a “Look East” policy to come closer to the countries of South-East Asia. We must, similarly, come closer to our western neighbours in the Gulf.”
In the months that followed, the Indian Navy, under the leadership of Admiral Suresh Mehta, launched its own “Look West Policy” of increased maritime engagement of the Gulf states, inspired by the vision of that famous maritime historian KM Panikkar, whose classic treatise India and the Indian Ocean (1945) underlined the strategic importance for India of the region from the Gulf of Aden to the Malacca Straits. The British Empire, wrote Panikkar, guarded the “jewel in its crown” from three outposts — Singapore, Mauritius and Yemen (Aden and Socotra). Today, free India has a special relationship with all the three countries.
In launching the “Look West Policy”, as a counterpoise to the earlier “Look East Policy” initiated by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1992, Dr Singh has revived an ancient relationship with the entire region, including Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain. The new relationship is built not just on the post-War and Cold War past, but is based on a new forward-looking equation with the region.
At the Manama Dialogue, organised annually in Bahrain by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), London, India has become an important participant both in the strategic and security policy discussions and in the increasingly important economic dialogue.
If India’s “Look East Policy” was aimed at reintegrating India with the dynamic, rapidly-rising economies of East and South-East Asia, her “Look West Policy” is aimed at strengthening relations with a region that is vital to India’s energy security, and is also a source of employment for over 3.5 million Indians and a source of sizeable foreign exchange remittances. In Saudi Arabia alone, there are over 2 million Indians, the largest expat community in the state, and it accounts for over 20 per cent of India’s oil imports.
If East and South-East Asian economies have emerged as India’s biggest trade partners, overtaking Europe and the United States, the GCC countries aren’t far behind, with Saudi Arabia being India’s fourth-biggest trade partner. Apart from the economic dimension to both these outreach efforts, there is a strategic dimension. India’s engagement with East and South-East Asia is part of her effort to handle the rise of China, and India’s engagement of Saudi Arabia is part of her effort to deal with the rise of militant Islam. India’s own rise is circumscribed to an extent by both these phenomenon.
So, it is not surprising that an Indian prime minister would want to talk about the epicentre of jihadi terrorism, Pakistan-Afghanistan, that threatens Saudi Arabia’s stability as much as India’s. The Saudis fund a substantial part of Pakistan’s defence budget and it is not for nothing that the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto famously dubbed Pakistan’s nuclear weapons as the “Islamic Bomb”!
Both China and Saudi Arabia have become important actors in the “new great game” in Central Asia and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, along with the United States, Russia, Iran and Turkey. Saudi Arabia has become an even more important interlocutor for India with its membership of G-20.
India need not take sides in the struggle for influence within the Islamic world between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey (with beleaguered Iraq nursing its wounds), but there is no question that India’s strategic interests lie more with the Arab world, and certainly till Iran’s and Israel’s moderates return to power.
As the only G-20 members from their respective regions of South, South-East and West Asia, India, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia form a new arc of stability with shared concerns about the global economy and the threat of jehadi terrorism. The shifts in power balances and economic fortunes within these two regions to our east and west will have important economic and strategic implications for India.
It is, therefore, understandable that Prime Minister Singh has been invited to inaugurate the first ever IISS Geo-economic Strategy Summit and the Bahrain Global Forum, with a focus on “rebalancing global geo-economic strategies for security, growth and development” by the Kingdom of Bahrain, scheduled for May 2010.
The rise of China and India is shifting the tectonic plates of Asia. Focused obsessively on the “near west” (Pakistan) and the “far west” (US), India neglects the “other west” (West Asia). India must become more active in the community-building efforts in West Asia. Riyadh and Bahrain are good places to begin from.