India will pay a price for reckless Persian Gulf policies

By M K Bhadrakumar

March 11, 2016

The Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir paid a day-long visit to Delhi on Tuesday, met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, and flew back. This was his first visit after becoming foreign minister last year in January and was primarily undertaken in the context of Modi’s forthcoming visit to Saudi Arabia in the first week of April.

From Indian accounts it appears that trade and investment, energy and security cooperation are on top of Modi’s agenda. Nothing unusual here – except one glaring omission. The two countries have quietly sidestepped their bombastic plans they had to cooperate in the field of defence.

When the former Defence Minister A. K. Antony had visited Saudi Arabia in February 2012 accompanied by a high level defence delegation which included the Defence Secretary, Vice Chief of Army Staff, Deputy Chief of Naval Staff and an Air Vice Marshal, there was a lot of hype.

A leading government think tank in Delhi even came up with a prognosis that the visit would provide “a thrust for India’s defence diplomacy in the Gulf region… Cooperation between the defence industries for joint R&D and production would certainly be beneficial for both countries… The delicate political and security situation in the Middle East, Saudi ambition for a regional leadership role and the available oil wealth are some of the major factors that would drive Saudi interest in this sector in future” (here).

Indeed, our expectations proved to be way off the mark. Why is it that Saudi Arabia and India cannot cooperate in the fields of defence and security?

The answer is not difficult to find – Saudi Arabia’s priority shall always be for such partnership with Pakistan and so long as India-Pakistan relations remain complicated, there is an inherent limitation to how far Riyadh can hold Delhi’s hands.

But the mother of all ironies is that with hardly three weeks to go for Modi’s historic visit to Saudi Arabia, reports have appeared that the Saudi leadership has offered a ‘post-retirement’ appointment to Pakistan’s army chief General Raheel Sharif – to be the commander-in-chief of the so-called ‘Islamic military alliance’ that Riyadh has recently created. It appears that Saudi Arabia wants to tap into Gen. Sharif’s unique experience and expertise in combating terrorist organizations.

Now, when one recalls that it was only a couple of months ago that the US Secretary of State John Kerry had warned against Saudi Arabia and Pakistan trading in nuclear weapons, the picture becomes a little bit clearer as to the quality and verve of the Saudi-Pakistan relationship.

Suffice it to say, it is bizarre that Delhi is taking another shot at rehabilitating India’s ‘strategic partnership’ with Saudi Arabia at the present juncture. What does Delhi hope to achieve?

Plainly put, the Indian interest in Saudi Arabia is three-fold: one, the welfare of the Indian expatriate community working in Saudi Arabia whose remittances have been a major source of budgetary support in ‘invisibles’; two, we buy big quantities of oil from Saudi Arabia; and, three, Saudi Arabia casts influence on India’s Muslim community.

Quite obviously, Saudi Arabia has not gone out of the way to accommodate Indian interests on any of these three templates. If there are over 2 million Indian workers in that country, it is because of their demand for guest workers to take up jobs that the Saudis themselves are reluctant to do. And Indian workers have a good reputation for hard work while keeping their nose clean.

Again, India pays market price for Saudi oil. There are no soft loans here, no concessional pricing (which is the case for Pakistan.) As for Saudi influence within India, it is not something that serves India’s national interests but we have learnt to tolerate for reasons of electoral politics.

On the other hand, Saudi economy is in considerable difficulty today due to the fall in oil prices. The capacity of that country to make investments abroad is shrinking and India’s investment climate never really appealed to them.

Above all, it is unrealistic to expect really meaningful security cooperation with Saudi Arabia. One does not have look far beyond the Saudi support for al-Qaeda affiliates and other extremist groups that morphed into the Islamic State (which has been fairly extensively established) to comprehend that Saudi policies cannot be a factor security and stability for our region or India’s internal security.

The big question, therefore, is why we cannot leave the Saudis and the Pakistanis to continue with their tango, while we move on with life.

The strong likelihood is that the Saudis have made an offer that Gen. Sharif will find it impossible to spurn.

Looking ahead, the high probability is that a qualitatively new phase of Saudi-Pakistani military alliance is about to begin against the backdrop of Iran’s rise as a regional power and the receding US role as provider of security in the Gulf.

The US president Barack Obama’s latest remarks on Saudi Arabia and Gulf politics underscore the rapidly changing regional alignments in Gulf, which only have motivated the Saudi monarch to recruit the Pakistani army chief as his commander-in-chief. In a wide-ranging interview on US foreign policy, Obama told the Atlantic magazine in an interview last weekend:

  • The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians, which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen, requires us to say to our friends, as well as to the Iranians, that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.

Don’t our mandarins in South Block understand what is unfolding in the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf region? Even assuming that some NRI businessmen would have an axe to grind by getting Modi across to the Persian Gulf every now and then, from India’s foreign-policy perspective in the short and medium term alike, it is injudicious to have thrust our innocent prime minister into the burning cauldron so recklessly.

Modi could as well have had a stopover in Cyprus (which has a delightful spring season) if the intention were to break the monotony of a long trans-Atlantic flight from the US. There is much symbolism here in what we are instead doing, whether we intended it or not.

The point is, coming on top of Modi’s recent visit to the UAE, India is needlessly causing misperception that in the existential battles in the West Asian region, it stands shoulder to shoulder with the Saudi-led alliance arrayed against Iran.

Modi’s most likely next Middle Eastern destination – Israel – will only reinforce that misperception.

Obama’s marker on Middle East politics should engage Delhi’s attention. There is a saying that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Indian foreign policy establishment is making a profound error of judgment in assessing the right side of history in the Middle East.