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Harsh V Pant: India's new equations in the Gulf

Harsh V Pant 

Despite recent initiatives by India and Pakistan to revive ties ruptured after the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008, there has been little substantive movement on the ground. The main stumbling block, as ever, remains the inability of the two states to agree on who was responsible for plotting the deadly attack on Mumbai which killed 166 people. The recent capture of a key suspect in Mumbai attacks — Sayed Zabiuddin, also known as Abu Jundal — and the confirmation from his interrogation that he was in the control room in Pakistan with ISI officials when the Mumbai attacks were underway, has put Pakistan in the dock. Though Pakistan continues to stonewall India, the reality is that it is getting increasingly isolated with even its closest ally, Saudi Arabia, deciding to work with India on terrorism-related issues.

And this is the larger story behind recent developments in South Asia. This is the first deportation of its kind from Saudi Arabia to India, and signals a sea change in Saudi Arabia’s priorities. For the last several years, India had looked to the Saudi authorities for help on terrorism-related issues. But Riyadh had been reluctant to jettison Pakistan in favour of India. Since September 11, 2001, there has been a broader change in Saudi policy and this is now reflected in Saudi Arabia helping India in the extradition of Jundal. As India has moved away from Iran, it has moved closer to Saudi Arabia with the help of the US.

In January 2006, Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud visited India (along with China) on his first trip outside the Middle East since taking the throne in August 2005. This trip was widely viewed as extremely significant as it underscored a strategic shift in Saudi foreign policy and was reflective of “a new era” for the kingdom. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reciprocated by visiting Riyadh in 2010, 28 years since the last Indian premier visited the Saudi kingdom, and promptly elevated the Indo-Saudi relationship to a “strategic partnership.” With his visit to Saudi Arabia, the prime minister reemphasised that, when it comes to the Gulf, Iran will not be the focus of Indian foreign policy.

Riyadh is the chief supplier of oil to India’s booming economy, and India is now the fourth largest recipient of Saudi oil after China, the United States, and Japan. India’s crude oil imports from the Saudi kingdom will likely double in the next 20 years. During his visit to India, the Saudi king emphasised his country’s commitment to uninterrupted supplies to a friendly country such as India regardless of global price trends.

New Delhi is also cultivating Riyadh for strategic reasons. To Indian strategists, any ally that can act as a counterweight to Pakistan in the Islamic world is significant. Initially, New Delhi sought to cultivate Tehran, but such efforts stumbled in recent years as the Islamic Republic has adopted an increasingly aggressive anti-Western posture. India hopes Saudi Arabia might fill that gap. Indeed, Iranian nuclear ambitions have helped to draw New Delhi and Riyadh closer together. Riyadh agreed to double its oil exports to India, helping New Delhi reduce its reliance on Iran.

The Saudi government has its own reasons for cultivating Indian ties. Saudi Arabia and Iran have long competed for power and influence in the Gulf. As the regional balance of power between Arabia and Persia threatens to unravel in Iran’s favour, New Delhi has repeatedly emphasised its desire to see the extant balance of power in the region stabilise. Given India’s growing stakes in the Gulf, it is not surprising that this should be the case.

The Saudi king’s 2006 visit to India was also a signal to the broader Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) community to build a stronger partnership with India. In an attempt to have a structured exchange on bilateral and collective security issues, the Indian-GCC dialogue previously held annually on the margins of the UN General Assembly is now being held in a GCC country, or in New Delhi for a dedicated forum. The security consequences of a rising Iran are as significant for other Arab Gulf states as they are for Saudi Arabia. Tehran’s nuclear drive, its interference in neighboring Iraq, and President Ahmadinejad’s aggressive rhetoric are raising anxieties in Arab states about a resurgent Iran, forcing them to reorient their diplomacy accordingly. Reaching out to emerging powers such as India is one way to preserve the balance of power in the region.

In the past, it was quite common for Indian terrorists living in Pakistan to travel to Saudi Arabia with new names and Pakistani passports. This was also done by Abu Jundal, who went to Saudi Arabia with a Pakistani passport to raise funds and recruit men for future attacks in India. With his deportation, Riyadh has signalled that this won’t be allowed to happen any longer. This is good news for the global fight against terrorism and India’s struggle against Pakistani military and intelligence services. India should now build on its ties with Riyadh and try to isolate Islamabad further. This is the only way to put pressure on Pakistan as it has so far failed to respond to demands from India and the world at large that the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attacks be brought to book.

The writer teaches at King’s College, London

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First Published: Sun, July 15 2012. 00:36 IST