‘Saudi spring’ on India’s doorstep

The breakthrough in India’s relations with Saudi Arabia stands out undoubtedly as a foreign-policy success story of the Modi government. This was on full display at the India Energy Forum meet at New Delhi on Monday where Saudi Energy Minister Khalid A. Al-Falih praised relations with India as “a strategic priority of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” He said the Saudi Aramco’s $44 billion investment in the Ratnagiri refinery is “just the start” and that the company is keen to invest in an “integrated downstream business, including on the retail side, as well as in storage capacity.”

Historically, India’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has been a chronicle of unfulfilled expectations. But that is changing. One main reason is Saudi Arabia’s ‘Look East’ policy gaining traction as a strategic necessity for that country. The 7-decades old alliance with the US is transforming and uncertainties are clouding it. Hence the impetus to strengthen relations with Russia, China, South Korea, Malaysia, India and so on. Second, the world oil market is in transition with the emergence of the US as a major exporting country.

The US-Saudi energy partnership with strong security underpinning provided by the American side and with petrodollar recycling lubricating it is unraveling. The two countries have divergent interests today with regard to oil output and oil prices, as the recent nasty tweets by President Trump threatening the Saudis revealed.

Third, most important, Saudis seem to have a new awareness of India as an attractive partner. The credit goes to effective Indian diplomacy. And PM Modi can take satisfaction that the effort he personally put into galvanizing the India-Saudi relationship is paying off.

Saudi Arabia has de-hyphenated its relations with India and Pakistan; on the other hand, India is not losing sleep over Saudi-Pakistani relations, either. A new level of maturity is visible. Quite obviously, India is also expanding its relations with Iran. Neither Saudis nor Iranians are prescriptive about India’s various friendships with the countries of that region.

The Jamal Khashoggi affair, which is currently playing out, becomes an added factor. While it is too early to predict what surprises lie on that front, it is abundantly clear that the stunning event unfolding through the past few days is a watershed moment. No matter the denouement, Saudi-American relations will not be the same again. The alchemy of the US-Saudi alliance has changed phenomenally and the resilience of the alliance is in doubt.

Some thought needs to be given how the emergent scenario impacts Indian interests. The starting point will be to read the tea leaves correctly. The US-Saudi faultline has a flip side, which India must welcome, namely, henceforth, the American tactic of ‘divide-and-rule’ will not work in the Gulf region. Plainly put, the so-called Saudi-Iranian rivalry (which was assiduously fueled by the US and Israel in self-interests) may begin to subside. Some Gulf states already keep a line open to Tehran – Oman, Qatar and Kuwait, in particular. Ironically, the GCC is moribund and that also helps to improve the regional climate in the Gulf region.

This overall trend will be to India’s advantage. Clearly, India benefits if it can optimally develop relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Here, what stands India in good stead is that it has refused to get entangled in the discord in the Gulf region. The good part is that there is no heartburn among the Gulf states that India was standoffish when squabbles broke out in their household.

There is remarkable consistency in the Indian policy, which has been possible because of the institutional memory and also from the fact that Indian diplomacy has been optimal, thanks to the professional expertise of the Foreign Service officers. The South Block’s policy dating back to the early 1970s to put emphasis on training a cadre of ‘Arabists’ in the Foreign Service has proved far-sighted. Other than Chinese and Russian languages, perhaps, no other foreign language received such priority in the MEA’s cadre policy in recent decades.

The bottom line is that geopolitics must not be allowed to subsume the all-important geo-economics in our Gulf policy. India has profound economic interests in the Gulf region – trade, NRIs, oil, massive remittances, etc. Now a new dimension is appearing – India as an investment destination for Gulf countries. The event in Delhi yesterday underscores this. The point is, India must be very clear-headed as to where its interests lie in the Gulf region. Modi understands this and has gone about his tours of the region very purposively. This sensible course of interaction with that region – realistic, focused and friendly, but non-interfering – must continue.

Of course, it will be foolish to bandwagon with the US in the Gulf. We will be stone deaf not to hear the strong antipathy toward the US in that region. The Khashoggi factor will add to that antipathy. Conceivably, the Gulf regimes are very well aware that Khashoggi had an a priori history as an operative of the Saudi and American intelligence agencies – eg., his links with Osama bin Laden and his close association with Prince Turki, Saudi spy master for nearly 3 decades who was the CIA’s principal hatchet man in the Muslim Middle East. What triggered the current happenings or why such excessive interest is visible on the part of the ‘Deep State’ in America – these remain obscure. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that a CIA-sponsored ‘regime change’ project simply got derailed with disastrous consequences and debris all around.

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