By Dr. D.K. Giri
Fortuitously, the Saudi Ambassador in New Delhi wrote on August 12 about growing friendship with India. He cites Ebrahim Alkazi, the legendary theatre personality with Saudi origin as a symbol of such friendship. At the same time, Riyadh rebuffs Islamabad. It cannot be just a coincidence; rather reflects a re-alignment of powers in the oil-rich Middle East that is dividing in their relationship to India and Pakistan.
Interestingly, the Saudi Ambassador Bin Mohammed Al-Sati gives a chronology of bonds of association between India and Saudi Arabia. Ebrahim Alkazi had distinct Saudi origin as his father Hamad, a trader from Unaiza in Saudi Arabia’s Qassim region came to Pune and settled there. Born in 1925, he became the Director of the prestigious National School of Drama in Delhi. Saudis considered him the latest link between India and Saudi Arabia. Many Indian texts on medicine, mathematics and astronomy were translated into Arabic. The father of Indology was Al-Biruni, who had done seminal work on India. The classic literature like Panchatantra, Hitopadesha and politicaltreatise like Arthashashtra and medical treatises like Charaka and Susruta were translated into Arabic.
Likewise, there have been many other art, culture and literary works connecting the two countries. Since 2017, the International Yoga Day is celebrated every year in Riyadh. In 2018, India was the Guest of Honour at Saudi annual cultural festival where the Indian pavilion had the banner “Saudi Ka Dost Bharat” (India, a friend of Saudis). The historical, cultural and commercial contacts have mutated in to a strategic partnership. The relations reached a kind of pinnacle with the visit of His Royal Highness Muhammed Bin Salman in February 2019.
On the other side, the relations between two long-time friends, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have deteriorated. The latest rift is evidenced by Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Querishi’s impatient and desperate outburst in a talk show, “if a meeting of Foreign Ministers of Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) was not convened by Saudi Arabia, I will be compelled to request our Prime Minister Imran Khan to hold a meeting with our allies among the Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir.”
Apparently, Pakistan requested a meeting of the 57-members of OIC to take a stand on Kashmir, which was rejected by Saudi Arabia heading the Islamic body. Pakistan then threatened to walk out of OIC as was expressed in their Foreign Minister’s outburst on the television chat. In retaliation, Saudi Arabia discontinued the loan of 6.2 billion USD agreed during Crown Prince’s visit in November 2018. Islamabad also has returned 1 billion USD of that loan amount months ahead of re-payment period with an emergency loan from China.
Riyadh’s displeasure with Islamabad stems from Pakistan drawing close to Turkey, Iran and Malaysia. Turkey’s autocratic and ego-centric President Recep Tayyip Erdogan nurtures the ambition of replacing Saudi Arabia as a leader of Sunni-Islamic countries. The second reason for Saudi’s discomfiture was the summit in Malaysia attended by Iran and Turkey. On the advice of Saudis, Imran Khan abstained from the meeting, but regretted later doing so. Saudis’ fear that “Ummah” could be divided and the OIC, the biggest block after UN could lose its coherence. But such an alternative Islamic club with Turkey, Iran, Qatar, Malaysia and Pakistan may be emerging.
Thirdly, as Pakistan decides to have China as their biggest and only mentor, Riyadh who has been a ‘white knight’ for Pakistan is withdrawing. Let us also note that Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the US, which may be nudging the former to pull its hands off a growing nexus between China, Iran and Pakistan.
As the reactions to Qureshi’s provocative statements are growing in Pakistan, there may be some attempt by Islamabad to assuage Riyadh. Observers remark that even Saudis may do something to placate Pakistan but not more to provoke India. Such overtures from Riyadh will depend on Pakistan’s proximity with Iran and Turkey which seems to be growing at the behest of China; Beijing has signed a 25-year strategic partnership agreement with Iran.
China needs multiple sources for oil, it depends on Saudi Arabia. It is also engaged in uranium exploration in Saudi Arabia. Beijing-Riyadh relations are contingent on America’s equation with China. As this equation currently plummets, the echo will be felt in Beijing-Riyadh transactions as it did on New Delhi-Tehran relations.
How does the rift in Middle East and between Islamabad and Riyadh impact India? It should augur well if New Delhi re-adjusts its policy. New Delhi had ‘an extra- special’ relationship with Iran based on historical connection, civilisational bonds, energy supply and regional security. All the four parameters apply equally to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region, some of the India-Saudi links are mentioned here at the outset.
Iran is a difficult place to do business with. It has cancelled India’s Railway contract in Chabahar port to Afghanistan border on the pretext of timeline. India had invested in this port for connectivity with Afghanistan. Iran has serious domestic political issues and a volatile attitude towards US and others. Instead of rueing over the loss of railway contract, New Delhi should take its partnership with the Arab world with or without Ian to the next level.
For various political turns, resourceful countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE are moving closer to India. The invitation to Sushma Swaraj to the OIC by UAE last year and the visit of Saudi crown prince to India are proof of the growing proximity.
New Delhi should not repeat the past mistakes of treating the Islamic block as a monolithic unit. It is not united behind Palestine nor does it speak with one voice on other issues. So Pakistan’s attempt to mobilise the Islamic world against India on Kashmir will not obviously work in the name of religion.
Politics, security and national economic interest matter more than other considerations. Even Pakistan, which was created on the basis of religion, got divided into two in 1971 with creation of Bangladesh. Religion did not hold the country together. Saudi Arabia’s support to Pakistan was not just based on religion as a Sunni-brother it had strategic and political bases. One such pillar of the relationship was Saudi Arabia’s alliance with United States which was using Pakistan as a frontline state in Afghanistan. That equation changed and the US began to draw down in Afghanistan. So Saudi Arabia also began to distance itself from Pakistan. New Delhi needs to study deeply the invisible hands in influencing realignments in international politics. The changes in Middle East will be a test case for India’s foreign policy as New Delhi repositions itself in the newly emerging scenario. Let us be wary that Indian foreign policy tends to be conservative and slow to embrace new partners or development. In radically changing international relations, India has to curb out a place in the New World Order which will be marked by a growing competition between democracy and autocracy, between co-operation and confrontation, between accommodation and expansion. For New Delhi the choice is obvious. But is the readiness there?
The author is Prof. International Politics, JMI