Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s long-planned and much-delayed visit to Saudi Arabia has certainly contributed to strengthening of bilateral relations as well as to India’s long-term energy security. As India’s economic growth rate picks up, and given the uncertainties in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia’s assurances to keep oil supplies flowing and to invest in India’s energy security must be welcomed. There has been some criticism in India about Indian diplomatic references to Saudi Arabia’s potential role in improving India-Pakistan relations. Whatever our domestic sensitivities, and however discouraging the past record of Saudi Arabia in the region, the fact is that the Saudis have enormous influence in Pakistan and can exert helpful pressure on the Pakistan Army if they so wish. According to strategic policy analysts, Saudi Arabia funds up to 40 per cent of Pakistan’s defence budget. Recall also the fact that when the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto dubbed Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme as the “Islamic Bomb”, his message was aimed at the one country he knew would fund it, namely Saudi Arabia. While Pakistan got its nuclear technology from China, it got the funding from Saudi Arabia. But, while China’s strategists may view Pakistan as an “all-weather” friend in keeping India off balance, the Saudis have other uses for Pakistan. Placed as they are between the undeclared nuclear capability of a Jewish Israel and a Shia Iran, Saudi Arabia’s Sunni rulers may well view the Pakistan bomb as their own. This fact must be borne in mind in understanding the big power rivalry in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Along with the US and Russia, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia also have a strategic interest in the region. A “new great game” is being played out in which India has a huge stake.
Thus, strong and stable relations with Saudi Arabia must constitute the foundation of India’s “Look West Policy”. In befriending Saudi Arabia, India seeks energy security, security of the sea lanes of communication, security of livelihood for 3.5 million Indians working in the region and, above all, regional security and stability. West Asia is, and has in all history been, an integral part of India’s neighbourhood. Saudi Arabia can contribute to South Asia’s development by playing a positive role, both geo-politically and economically. But to be a factor for good, it must not only play a decisive role in fighting jihadi terrorism in the region, but also in limiting the negative consequences of radical Wahabism across Asia. Saudi Arabia has emerged as a major Asian power, now also a member of the G-20, and so bears the responsibility of ensuring that Asia’s economic rise is not harmed by the spread of religious extremism and jehadi terrorism. India and Saudi Arabia can forge a win-win strategic partnership given the complementary structures of their economies. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit would prove fruitful in the long run if it has helped get this message across to a younger and modern Saudi leadership.