The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s is expected to land in New Delhi on Tuesday, 19 February. The first ever India visit of Prince Mohammed or MBS, as he is popularly known, must be utilised by New Delhi to deepen the bilateral relationship.
Before coming to India, MBS had a short visit to Pakistan, which treated this as the biggest state visit in recent years. The grand welcome including a 21-gun salute for MBS, was a part of Pakistan’s attempt to impress the Saudi prince, who also obliged by announcing a slew of investments worth 20 billion dollars.
Pakistan Visit May Throw Up Hurdles for India
This is expected to provide a much-needed boost for a faltering Pakistani economy struggling with a looming foreign reserve crisis. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has already visited Saudi Arabia twice since coming to power in 2018. However, the Saudi Crown Prince’s visit was overshadowed by escalating tensions between India and Pakistan, following the Pulwama terror attack claimed by Pakistan-based terror outfit, Jaish-e-Mohammed.
It remains to be seen how successful the Modi government would be in convincing MBS that Pakistan is the real source of terrorism in the region, and that, his efforts to roll back religious radicalism will face the biggest hurdles on Pakistani soil.
Arabia’s Push for Religious Moderation
MBS has been promoting a liberal and progressive vision of the Islamic faith in his country. These modernising attempts assume special significance as the spread of the global jihad movement has often been linked with Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism. From being described as merely a conservative and puritanical interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism has now come to be accused of inspiring radicalisation and precipitating a terrorism crisis in especially Muslim countries. Many view this Saudi religious outlook as the ideological incubator of sectarian violence across the Middle East.
Since India has been at the receiving end of Afghan jihad as well as previous American acquiescence of Pakistan’s ‘patronage’ of Islamist terrorism, India must support MBS in his push for religious moderation in Saudi Arabia.
Political & Strategic Issues for India, Saudi Arabia
For both India and Saudi Arabia, many political and strategic issues underscore the importance of each other. Riyadh is New Delhi’s fourth largest trade partner after China, US and Japan. Saudi Arabia is India’s second-biggest oil supplier after Iraq, with New Delhi importing almost a fifth of its crude oil requirement from Riyadh. India, as one of the largest economies, can be a part of Saudi Arabia’s growth.
There is a consensus within Saudi establishment for strengthening engagement and cementing partnership with India. The visit of King Abdullah to India in 2006 as the chief guest of India’s Republic Day celebrations had laid a solid foundation for the India-Saudi relationship. The ‘Delhi Declaration’, signed between the two countries during his visit, stressed that terrorism was a scourge that “the governments would closely and actively cooperate” to fight against. This declaration was the first such bilateral document ever signed by a Saudi King. The Grand Imam of Mecca paid the first ever visit to India in March 2011.
Counter-terrorism: A key area of India-Saudi Cooperation
Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia in April 2016 further cemented the Indo-Saudi partnership. During his meeting with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, agreements on economic and security cooperation were signed. India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Riyadh in February 2018 to inaugurate the India pavilion at the Janadriyah, while the then finance minister Arun Jaitley had visited Riyadh in the same month to co-chair the 12th Joint Commission Meeting. Two batches of Saudi military cadets have even been trained in India’s premier military academy.
The rise of terrorism and extremism has been a matter of particular concern for both India and Saudi Arabia. It needs to be noted that Saudi Arabia faced a renewed threat from terrorism with the ISIS declaring a caliphate in Mosul in 2014.
Saudi Crackdown on Terror
Several terror attacks targeted the Saudi security forces – the American consulate in Jeddah and the Medina Mosque, to name a few. This terrorist campaign was different from the previous terrorist attacks that had taken place between 2003 and 2008, when the al-Qaeda targeted foreign compounds. Despite being eliminated from territories in Iraq and Syria, the ISIS posed a huge ideological challenge to Saudi regime which can ignore this at its own peril.
The Gulf region was often used as a safe haven by India’s many home-grown extremist and terrorists groups. Due to the large migrant population in the Gulf, frequent visits of Muslims from the Indian subcontinent did not arouse much suspicion among Saudi security agencies. But terrorist outfits were leveraging these economic opportunities for mobilising funds for terror activities in India. Saudi Arabian security agencies noticed this disturbing trend, and began to crack down on such individuals and groups.
The Saudi regime has been regularly helping India apprehend key terror suspects. In 2012 Riyadh helped New Delhi arrest two key terror suspects. In December 2016, Saudi Arabia deported a ring leader of fake Indian currency note racket. In August 2018, a suspected terrorist belonging to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was arrested by the NIA after Saudi Arabia deported him to India.
Political Will in Both New Delhi & Riyadh
If MBS continues to be at the helm of affairs, there is no doubt that Saudi society, economy and politics will have a vastly different face after a decade. All sectors of the economy are likely to move in a new direction under the Saudi Vision 2030 which envisages privatisation and reduced dependence on oil.
There has been a remarkable shift in India’s approach to the Saudi Kingdom, as increased focus on security and counter-terrorism points to a maturing relationship. The current phase in Indo-Saudi relationship is an outcome of the willingness of political leadership in both New Delhi and Riyadh, to build on areas of mutual interests.