Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s visit and Indo-Saudi Relations by Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam February 19, 2019

The visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to India at the head of a large business and official delegation this week is being looked up to with expectations of further deepening of relations between the two countries.

It is not just the MoUs that are going to be signed during his visit, but the subtle change it is going to usher in the Sub-continent in terms of a check on terrorism, promotion of tolerant version of Islam (which is its real nature) and respect for all religions as the new policy Prince Mohammad bin Salman has been espousing. It also means a clear-cut Saudi disavowal of any support to militancy anywhere in the world.

His visit to Pakistan before his Delhi visit should be seen in the larger context of discouraging militancy of any kind. This is the message that he must have given to Pakistan, to stay away from provocative acts. Pakistan’s dependence on Saudi Arabia should make them listen to the Crown Prince.

The Crown Prince’s visit is coming at a moment of Kashmiri fidayeen attack on a CRPF personnel-carrying truck leading to the death of over 40 men of the paramilitary force.

This has ignited a rage across the country not just against Kashmiri militants, but against Jaish (a militant organisation based in Pakistan) and Pakistan itself, for harbouring terrorists. For India, it is a shock from which it can recover quickly as it did after the Mumbai attack and Naxalite attack on CRPF personnel, each killed more people than the recent Pulwama (J&K) attack.

It is hoped that this Indo-Saudi proximity will dampen terror of all kinds, if not Naxal terror.

This is the first visit of the Crown Prince that comes in the wake of his call for a dialogue between India and Pakistan. India’s largest source of energy (nearly 20 percent) and the number one destination of Indian workers (yearly remittance to India: $ 10 billion), Saudi Arabia has gradually emerged as an energy security partner of India. They also signed a defence MOU in 2014. After the then Saudi King Abdullah’s visit in 2006, this is going to be the most important visit, especially because Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Crown Prince know each other well.

A defence production agreement between India and Saudi Arabia is on the cards. On his part, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his visit to Saudi Arabia in 2016, had invited Saudi investment in India’s Smart Cities and Start Up India projects. Besides, India has shown interest in the huge infrastructure building and business opportunity provided by the ambitious Saudi Vision 2030. India would like to invest in the Saudi Vision project.

Along with mutual national security, intelligence-sharing and anti-terror co-operation, of late cultural co-operation has grown. Saudi Arabia had India as the guest of honour in the Janadriya cultural festival last year. India’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, travelled to Saudi Arabia to participate in the festival.

All this is happening in the backdrop of India’s growing strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia’s arch rival, Iran. India has substantial stakes in the Iranian Chabahar project that provides India with a direct route to Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. That also makes it easier for India to keep a watch on the China-built strategic Gwadar port in Baluchistan. Iranians not only want to deepen their influence in the region through co-operation with India, but also to take cover under India’s moderating influence in case push comes to shove with US or Israel.

India’s growing closeness to Saudi Arabia is significant for the country because imports from Iran will be deeply affected as the US sanction on Iranian exports grow more strength. At that point the Saudis will be a reliable energy supplier. In turn, India will be less close to Iran than to Saudi Arabia.

Some of the American sanction on Iran’s exports have been softened by President Trump’s temporary waiver to India for energy purchases from Iran.

In a significant development last year, the world’s largest oil producer, Saudi Aramco, signed a memorandum of understanding with India’s major oil companies to invest in the $44 billion West Coast refinery and petrochemical project, Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemicals. Saudi Arabia could invest as much as half of the total cost.

The Saudi plan to scale up investments in India was announced after the Crown Prince and the Indian Prime Minister met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires late last year. The Crown Prince showed interest in investment in tech, energy and agriculture. Within the next two to three years the Saudis will substantially increase their investment in India, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhle announced following the two leaders’ meeting in Buenos Aires.

There is a context to the dynamics of Indo-Saudi rapprochement that can be understood in the light of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s frequent iteration that he wants to distance his country from the 1979 legacy. That was the time when the Saudis had to change their virtually neutral policy to one that was deeply allied to American and Pakistani foreign policy interests. It was the time that the Shah of Iran was driven out by Islamic revolutionaries and their leader Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini became the head of the state and government, bringing in Shia theology as state policy.

After having demolished the Iranian monarchy they emerged as a powerful threat to the Saudi monarchy and Sunni Islam. Around that time the former Soviet Union (the predecessor of today’s Russia) invaded Afghanistan provoking America to act. In this background, America built a coalition against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan with Afghan and international volunteer mujahideen, including the Saudi engineer Osama bin Laden, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

With mujahideen fighting spirit, American weapons, Pak army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) providing the logistics support and Saudi finance, they drove out the Soviet forces within a decade.

The same international volunteer mujahideen, aligned with Mullah Omar, began to challenge American hegemony over much of the Muslim world, combined with America’s unstinted support to Israel in its war against Palestinians. The Saudis began to feel the need for change in the policy of support to the mujahideen who had driven out the Soviet forces from Afghanistan. Soon Osama bin Laden’s men began to bomb Saudi targets, American diplomatic establishments in Africa, Yemen and elsewhere.

Under King Salman support to all groups with a possible militant agenda has been stopped as Afghanistan, a free country, is now on the verge of national reconciliation and departure of US forces in near future. To Crown Prince Salman it is the time of making of a new world order. It is not the Saudi-Pak-US coalition of Afghanistan any longer. For him it is time to build bridges with India to usher in a better future for much of the world. India has all the reason to reciprocate.

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