Published on Feb 28 2019
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received a warm welcome in India on Tuesday, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke protocol and greeted his visitor at the airport – despite the crown prince not yet being the head of state. The interaction was closely scrutinised given the crown prince, known as MBS, visited Pakistan earlier in the week and reiterated Saudi’s traditional support for Islamabad.
Relations between India and Pakistan have been even more strained than usual in the aftermath of the February 14 suicide bombing in Kashmirthat killed more than 40 Indian security personnel.
The attack has been blamed on Pakistani-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (Jem), and Modi has vowed to punish those responsible and impose international isolation on Pakistan. India has lobbied for JeM and its leader to be added to the UN’s terror watch list.
While in Pakistan, MBS offered wholehearted support to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government. A joint statement underlined “the need for avoiding politicisation of UN listing regime”, much to Delhi’s chagrin.
In turn, the references to terrorism at the Modi-Salman press conference were generic but the joint statement was more substantive and the fine print appeared to address India’s concerns.
The two leaders “condemned in the strongest terms, the recent terrorist attack on Indian security forces on 14 February, 2019 in Pulwama in Jammu & Kashmir” and also “called upon all countries to renounce the use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy”.
“Both sides agreed on the need for creation of conditions necessary for resumption of the comprehensive dialogue between India and Pakistan,” the joint statement said.
If MBS succeeds in reopening a bilateral dialogue between India and Pakistan, that would be the most significant consequence of his visit. Pakistan’s deep state remains resolutely anti-India but the suggestion that Pakistan must cooperate in cracking down on terror groups will have been heard in Islamabad, the capital city, and also in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the country’s powerful military.
The Saudi crown prince had been reluctant to criticise Pakistan in public but the Indian government has clearly been willing to consider the bigger picture.
Beyond geopolitical considerations, India’s engagement with Saudi Arabia extends to the energy economy. Saudi Arabia is a major energy supplier and India currently imports 17 per cent of its crude oil and 32 per cent of its liquefied petroleum gas from the kingdom.
The value of total bilateral trade is just shy of US$28 billion. Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth-largest trading partner and that relationship has grown 10 per cent each year. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is home to 2.7 million Indians who remit an estimated US$11 billion annually – a less visible but highly valued foreign exchange infusion.
India is also home to the world’s second-largest Muslim population (after Indonesia), sending as many as 175,000 pilgrims to the annual haj. Therefore, Saudi Arabia, as the custodian of the Holy Mosque, benefits from its special status.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has styled itself as the standard-bearer for Sunni Islam, placing it in strategic conflict with Iran, its foremost rival and the region’s leading Shia power. Although India has sought to deepen ties with Saudi Arabia over the past decade, its interests may be best served by balancing that relationship with its engagement with the Iranians. Specifically, India’s strategic interests with Iran, beyond the energy sector, include access provided to Afghanistan and Central Asia, denied to it by Pakistan.
As an emerging Saudi-led security framework, including the UAE and Pakistan, seeks to “contain” Iran, India – which has the world’s second-largest Shia population after Iran – would prefer to avoid choosing definitively between these regional rivals.
Nevertheless, agreements signed by MBS during his visit to South Asia – encompassing infrastructure, solar energy, agriculture and defence – could be worth as much as US$100 billion.
The most telling statement, though, may be Saudi Arabia’s willingness to balance its relations with India and Pakistan. On the highly charged issue of terrorism, MBS appears to have offered solidarity on both fronts, calibrating his response in a way that keeps both sides happy.
Source: South China Morning Post, 21 February 2019, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/geopolitics/article/2187046/saudi-crown-prince-mohammed-bin-salmans-deft-balancing-act