x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Gulf's balance of power tilts Saudi Arabia towards India

As India moves away from Iran it is looking to forge closer ties with Saudi Arabia, a geopolitical shift that will have many benefits, as well as great challenges, for the region.

Despite recent initiatives by India and Pakistan to revive their ties that were 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 attack, which killed 166 people.

The recent capture of a key suspect in the Mumbai attacks, Sayed Zabiuddin, also known as Abu Jundal, and the confirmation from his interrogation that he was in a control room in Pakistan with ISI officials while the attacks were underway, has put Pakistan in the dock. Although Islamabad continues to stonewall, 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. Zabiuddin's deportation was the first of its kind from Saudi Arabia to India, and signalled a sea change in Saudi priorities. For the last several years, India has 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, now reflected in Riyadh's extradition of Zabiuddin. As India has moved away from Iran, it has moved closer to Saudi Arabia with the help of the United States.

In January 2006, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah visited India (along with China) on his first trip outside the Middle East since taking the throne in August 2005. The trip was widely viewed as extremely significant as it underscored a strategic shift in Saudi foreign policy and reflected "a new era" for the kingdom. India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reciprocated by visiting Riyadh in 2010, 28 years after the last Indian premier visited the kingdom, and promptly elevated the Indo-Saudi relationship to a "strategic partnership". With his visit, Mr Singh re-emphasised that, when it comes to the Arabian Gulf, Iran will not be the focus of Indian foreign policy.

Riyadh is the chief supplier of oil to India's booming economy, making India the fourth largest consumer of Saudi oil after China, the United States and Japan. The country's crude oil imports from the Saudi kingdom will likely double in the next 20 years. During his visit in 2006, the Saudi king had emphasised his country's commitment to uninterrupted supplies to a friendly country such as India regardless of trends in global prices.

New Delhi is also cultivating Riyadh for strategic reasons. To Indian strategists, any ally that can act as a counterweight to Pakistan in the Muslim world is significant. Initially, New Delhi sought to cultivate Tehran, but such efforts stumbled in recent years as Iran 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 recently 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 relations with India. Saudi Arabia and Iran have long competed for power and influence in the Gulf. As the regional balance of power between the two 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 GCC community about building 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 the other Arab Gulf states as they are for Saudi Arabia. Tehran's nuclear drive, its interference in neighbouring Iraq and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's aggressive rhetoric are raising anxieties about a resurgent Iran, forcing GCC states 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 Zabiuddin, who went to Saudi Arabia with a Pakistani passport to raise funds and recruit men for future attacks on 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. 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 attacks be brought to book.


Harsh V Pant is a reader in international studies at King's College London