Would a Delicate Balance in South Asia Work for Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman concluded an official visit to India as part of his trip to Asia. The visit came after his trip to Pakistan as tensions are looming between the two nuclear-armed South Asian states (India and Pakistan) due to the recent attack in Pulwama by Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a terrorist group that is based in Pakistan.

For the Saudi Crown Prince, it was the second trip abroad since Mohammed Bin Salman came to the headlines in October 2018 due to his role in directing the murder of the Saudi born, Washington Post Columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. American lawmakers who were briefed by the US intelligence agencies on the incident indicated that the Saudi Crown Prince is ‘guilty’ of the heinous murder of the journalist. During his stay in New Delhi, he met with top Indian leaders including the President, Prime Minister, foreign minister and other top officials of the Indian government.

As the bilateral trade between the two countries reached more than $27 billion in 2018, by emphasizing the nature of the Indian-Saudi relations, the Saudi Crown Prince said that ‘’we want to be sure that India and Saudi Arabia’s relationship is maintained for thousands of years’’. Trade was one of the most important aspects of the relationship that were discussed during Bin Salman’s meetings with top Indian officials as both countries inked several memoranda of understanding on enhancing bilateral investment, housing, solar energy, tourism, infrastructure and broadcasting. Riyadh is also one of India’s top suppliers of energy and may increase its oil shipments in the coming months if New Delhi fails to secure a renewal from the US as Washington had imposed severe economic sanctions on Iran. In November, India was one of the only eight countries that secured a sanctions waiver from the US to continue purchasing oil from Iran, although they had to reduce to a certain amount.  

While Riyadh is deepening its strategic partnership with Pakistan in an attempt to counter Iran’s presence in South Asia, Indian officials seem skeptical on the joint statement issued by both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan after Bin Salman’s trip, which emphasized avoiding ‘politicization on the UN listing regime’. In India’s view, underlining the UN listing regime is an attempt to avoid the UN to sanction the leader of the JeM group, the group that claimed the responsibility for the recent Pulwama attack that killed more than 40 Indian paramilitary troopers. Previously, Pakistan was not in favor of sanctioning the group while China has blocked several attempts to include JeM leader in the global terrorist list by the United Nations, although the joint statement issued after the visit condemned the recent Pulwama attack, but failed to blame those responsible for the attack.

However, Bin Salman agreed with the Indian officials to enhance security cooperation by strengthening the counterterrorism cooperation as well as naval and cybersecurity issues as Prime Minister Modi said after his meeting with the Saudi leader. This includes ‘holding joint naval exercises in the future’ and working closely with other Indian Ocean Rim Countries to ‘enhance maritime security that is vital for the security and prosperity of the region, as well as the international trade that crosses the ocean’ as the joint statement stated. Unlike Islamabad, where top Pakistani officials warmly welcomed the Saudi Crown Prince and the news was about the presence of the soon to be king, hundreds had protested in New Delhi against the ongoing Saudi military operation in Yemen against the Houthis, an Iranian backed armed militia in the war-torn country.

Other areas that both countries agreed to continue to work closely on included regional connectivity and they emphasized the importance of ‘respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity’ on the countries that these projects are going on. This could be interpreted as a joint concern about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its growing influence in the region through its alleged intention of extracting political and economic concessions from the debtor country, to gain a strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean, which threatens India’s security. A recent example is Sri Lanka’s decision to lease its Hambantota to a Chinese company for 99 years. After India, Saudi Crown Prince is due to visit China to meet with the top leadership of Beijing and discuss bilateral economic relations.

As India and Saudi Arabia continue to strengthen their bilateral ties since the Delhi Declaration in 2006, relations between the two are also challenged by the geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East and South Asia. India is developing close economic and trade ties with Iran in an attempt to strengthen its presence in the Middle East as Riyadh is, on the other hand, trying to cozy up with Pakistan, New Delhi’s archrival and neighbor. But it is highly unlikely that the two will break apart in the coming years

While India’s relationship with Saudi Arabia will continue to grow in the economic sphere, New Delhi will also continue to deepen its ties with Iran as the two are engaged in an important project to develop the Chabahar Port as a counterweight to Beijing’s China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which Pakistan already invited Riyadh to participate, although it may antagonize China. As India will continue to balance its relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, Riyadh will on the other hand attempt to maintain a delicate balance between New Delhi and Islamabad, as it has already offered a dialogue between the two rivals to avoid escalating the current tensions, but will lack the leverage to press any party (either the Indians or the Pakistanis) to engage in a serious dialogue hosted by Riyadh.

Image Credit: Prime Minister’s Office, India

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