Saudi Arabia's balancing act between India and Pakistan
Arriving in New Delhi last month for a two-day official visit, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan held extensive meetings with the Indian Minister for External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Kumar Doval, and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Though bilateral coordination in economic and security matters featured high on the agenda, another main reason for the talks was the rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan.
Since the Taliban announced its interim government in early September, which featured no women and was mostly comprised of hardliners, Riyadh has become increasingly concerned about security and whether instability in the country could lead to a new global jihadist network.
"Having got back on track only recently, Saudi-Pakistan ties had been in limbo for two years partially due to the former's lack of interest in the Kashmir dispute"
Most Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are worried about a spillover of violence from Afghanistan if extremist groups are not contained. Making the Saudi stance clear, Prince Farhan stated that the Kingdom would support “the choices the Afghan people make regarding the future of their country, away from external interference”.
Since New Delhi and Riyadh are strategic partners, the Saudi FM discussed the unstable scenario in Afghanistan with Indian NSA Ajit Doval at length, but in reality, there is not much New Delhi can do to help. Having lost clout in Kabul after the unexpected collapse of the Ghani administration, India itself is following a wait and watch policy these days.
Unexpectedly though, in an interview with Indian media, the Saudi FM declared during his visit that the Kingdom was ready to play its role in resolving the Kashmir issue, as well as help in easing tensions between India and Pakistan. Considering that he said this while in New Delhi, it was a significant statement.
A few days later, Prince Farhan then held discussions on Afghanistan with his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session in New York.
Balancing India and Pakistan
Trying to maintain a firm balance between both Islamabad and New Delhi, Riyadh’s recent moves demonstrate a change in its foreign policy. Having got back on track only recently, Saudi-Pakistan ties had been in limbo for two years partially due to the former’s lack of interest in the Kashmir dispute.
During this time, Riyadh and New Delhi had become much closer and at times it even seemed as if New Delhi had dislodged Islamabad’s foothold in the Kingdom.
“The outreach to India is very interesting since, while Saudi has always had cordial ties with India, its warmth was reserved for Pakistan,” Ali Shihabi, an author and commentator with a focus on Saudi politics, told The New Arab.
“In the past decade, Saudi leaders have made a special effort to strengthen India ties in recognition of India’s growing regional and global economic and political weight.”
Once described as “probably one of the closest relationships in the world between any two countries” by former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal, there is not much trade between Riyadh and Islamabad, but they share an irreplaceable bond of trust and their defence relations remain unaffected by other frictions.
For decades, Pakistan has facilitated the Kingdom with military training programs and some Pakistan army troops remain stationed on the ground there. Islamabad provides Riyadh with a special security guarantee for its holy sites as it remains the sole Muslim nuclear power. In addition, there is a large Pakistani diaspora living and working in the Kingdom.
Even when it comes to Afghanistan, Islamabad remains the best option for Riyadh. With serious concerns about an unstable Afghanistan providing fresh opportunities for terror outfits to regroup, Saudi Arabia would like to establish connections there, but in a remote manner.
"In the past decade, Saudi leaders have made a special effort to strengthen India ties in recognition of India's growing regional and global economic and political weight"
However, Saudi-India ties seem set to grow even further and balancing New Delhi and Islamabad is not going to be easy for Riyadh. Therefore, mediating between both these allies has become necessary to avoid upsetting either of them.
Saudi-India ties have had a major strategic and economic boost in the last couple of years and since the Strategic Partnership Council agreement Riyadh and New Delhi are collaborating in many more sectors.
“The economy has been the primary reason for a historically strong relationship between Saudi Arabia and India,” Ashok Swain, Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at the Uppsala University in Sweden, told The New Arab.
“While India needs oil and investments (FDI) from Saudi Arabia in recent years, India’s importance to Saudi Arabia is its huge market for Saudi oil. Since Manmohan Singh’s period, the relationship has become strategic as well, after India’s tilt towards the US”.
Nevertheless, the Saudi-Pakistan equation has its own value and in Swain’s opinion Riyadh, which sees itself as the natural leader of the Muslim world, will try to balance Delhi and Islamabad.
“However, the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy and the growing discrimination against Muslims in India have brought serious diplomatic challenges for Saudi Arabia to maintain this balance,” Swain added.
Though specific details are not available about the meeting last month, bilateral trade and rising Saudi investments in India were discussed during the Saudi FM’s visit. In the last five to six years, Saudi investment has grown from $50 million in 2014 to $3 billion today.
According to Prof. Michaël Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy and a non-resident fellow in the economics and energy program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., the Saudi-India connection can grow exponentially.
“Commercial partnerships with India, slated to be the world's third-largest economy by 2030, are crucial to Saudi Arabia's ambitions to become the premier Middle East business hub,” Prof. Tanchum said, providing new details about the Riyadh-New Delhi equation.
Specifying a new trade route, he added: “Utilising its maritime connectivity with India across the Arabian Sea, Riyadh is partnering with New Delhi to create a commercial corridor between the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian Peninsula, transforming the pattern of trade between the Middle East and Asia.”
Ostensibly, Saudi Arabia may follow this strategy as India is projected to become its largest oil market. According to the Indian Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, oil demand will spike by 130% by 2040. Currently, India is Saudi Arabia’s third-largest trade partner despite setbacks posed by the pandemic.
"Commercial partnerships with India, slated to be the world's third-largest economy by 2030, are crucial to Saudi Arabia's ambitions to become the premier Middle East business hub"
“The foundation of this corridor are India's partnerships with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to create manufacturing value chains that service Middle Eastern markets through cost-effective production in India that earns greater revenue for India and services India's home market,” Prof. Tanchum said, explaining the practicality of such a corridor.
“The win-win commercial cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia ranges across a variety of sectors in agriculture and industry, helping to ensure supply chain security for both countries, as well as third-country manufacturers concerned about an over-reliance on China. Saudi-Indian cooperation to form an integrated hydrocarbon value chain through Saudi investment in petrochemicals manufacturing in India is one of the leading initiatives of the corridor,” he added.
“The Saudi-Indian economic symbiosis brings Saudi capital together with India's ability to create economies of scale and is likely to play an expanding role in Saudi Arabia's development as an international business hub.”
Known as India’s Arab-Mediterranean Corridor, it could provide an alternate option to other trade corridors in the region if it proves workable. In any case, Saudi-India ties are on an upward trajectory and seem likely to only grow further in the near future.
Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer, and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Middle East, and South Asia.
Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi