One of Modi’s foreign policy achievements has been to bring Saudi Arabia into the fold as an ally, not just a friend
For decades India and Saudi Arabia had a strange relationship. The Saudis were the primary financial backers of Pakistan and while their nation was home to millions of Indian workers, it was Pakistan who dominated their thinking. Yet over the past few years, as the Saudi State has changed dramatically under the leadership of the new Crown Prince Mohammad bin-Salman, the shift helped India make a breakthrough. He cast away the traditional system by which the monarchy passed down the al-Saud clan as well as re-fashioned the State in his own image, occasionally through extreme brutality. But despite such severe disruptions of shock and awe, bin-Salman has also tried to be a moderniser. He has allowed women the right to drive, to travel alone without male company and most importantly tried to steer the country away from its hydrocarbon-based economy, trying to open new avenues for young Saudis to work and investing in new cities and investment zones. However, a protracted proxy war with Iran, which dates back to the schism in Islam, a challenge from Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who sees himself as a new Ottoman Sultan and thus a leader of the Muslim world and an ego battle with Qatar have all damaged bin-Salman’s reputation, so much so that some of his enemies are looking forward to the prospect of his fall.
Yet, in the entire melodrama in the Arabian peninsula and the Levant, ties between Saudi Arabia and its closest ally, the United Arab Emirates, have remained steadfast and both nations see a new friend in India. Not just as a country to invest money in but also an Asian neighbour that shares some of their geopolitical goals. The friendship that has blossomed between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and bin-Salman would have been considered impossible, but it has. The young Saudi prince’s support of India meant that Pakistan could not pull its usual trick of using the Organisation of Islamic Countries to condemn India on the changed status of Kashmir and found support only from Turkey and Malaysia. In fact, the Saudis are quite put off by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan availing of their munificence and yet setting up an alternate Islamic axis with Erdogan. As a hitback, Saudi Arabia, under its ‘Vision 2030’, has selected eight countries for forging strategic partnerships. These include India, China, the UK, the US, France, Germany, South Korea and Japan. For India, the strategic interest could not have come at a better time. After US sanctions on Iran and Venezuela, India needed to secure its energy interests. The Saudi supply chain was a quick replacement, with India now importing 83 per cent of its oil needs and Saudi Arabia emerging as the second-biggest supplier. Access to Indian markets is a huge economic benefit for Riyadh too. Not just for oil. In climate-challenged times, Saudi Arabia wants to rely less on its oil reserves and emerge as a hub of alternative energy and clean fuels. In March 2018, the Kingdom announced the largest renewable project, a solar push worth over $200 billion. India, the prime initiator of the global solar alliance and with its emerging economy status, would be a prime market for selling clean energy. Besides, Saudi Arabia is keen on investing in new growth engines like China and India simply because the returns would be quicker and higher. And in spearheading the fight against global terrorism and its hubs, thereby keeping the pressure on Pakistan, India needs the Saudi endorsement on the subject. So Modi’s trip was not only to escape Delhi’s (literally) toxic atmosphere but to shake hands with a new ally and announce to the world that this new-found friendship is not just a relationship of convenience but one that is here to stay.
Thursday, 31 October 2019 | Pioneer
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