Engaging King Salman through Security Links?


If Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to transform Indo-Saudi relations during the reign of 79-year-old King Salman, who took over the Saudi throne in January, he should begin the process by sending an expert with a security-intelligence background as his next envoy to Riyadh, insists Professor P R Kumaraswamy

The ascendance of Salman as the king of Saudi Arabia following the death of his half-brother King Abdullah in January marks a new phase in West Asia. The transition has been smooth and in line with the practice established by founder King Ibn Saud in 1933, but the Kingdom is definitely moving irreversibly in the direction of a generational change. Since 1953, only the sons of Ibn Saud have ruled the country and by nominating Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayef as the deputy Crown Prince and second deputy Prime Minister, King Salman has also anointed him as the third in the line of succession.

Even while proclaiming to follow the broader direction set by his predecessor, King Salman has instituted far reaching changes in the cabinet; some of the old-timers were quietly sidelined and scores of advisory panels with key princes were disbanded. Partly to overcome any potential opposition from the citizenry and partly to project himself as a benevolent ruler, the King announced a generous welfare package to the Saudis. The bonus, estimated at $32 billion, comes at a time when Saudi Arabia is facing current account deficit amidst falling oil prices.

At the same, some of the challenges that confronted Abdullah have become more acute and troubling. Ever since he became the de facto ruler following the debilitating stroke suffered by his half-brother King Fahd in November 1995, Abdullah, the then Crown Prince, faced a host of challenges. The euphoria following the end of the Cold War and the restoration of the Kuwaiti sovereignty did not endure and the latter also entered a phase of religious extremism. The American presence in the Arabian Peninsula towards removing the Iraqi invasion infuriated the conservatives who viewed the al-Saud reliance on the ‘infidel’ support to themselves as un-Islamic. Thus, the ‘Afghan Arabs’, who fought the Soviets, turned inwards, eventually leading to the September 11 terror attacks in the United States. These attacks brought a focus on the conservatism in the Saudi education system and its adverse impact upon Islam. The reprisal moves initiated by President George W Bush against Afghanistan, and then Iraq, made things worse for Abdullah. Despite strong strategic relations between the two, the September 11 attack and its aftermath was a defining moment for US-Saudi relations and compelled Riyadh to look for alternative friends and economic partners.

Ascendance of Indo-Saudi Relations

It was under these circumstances that Indo-Saudi relations witnessed an ascendance. For centuries, bilateral relations flourished due to hajj pilgrimage and trade contacts, but assumed the energy dimension following the 1973 oil crisis that underscored India’s acute dependence upon the Gulf for its energy needs. This phase also marked the beginning of the emigration of Indian workers to oil rich Arab countries along the Persian Gulf. Presently, there are over seven million Indian expatriates who are gainfully employed in the Gulf region and their annual remittances to their families in 2013 were estimated at $32.7 billion. Saudi Arabia alone has about 2.8 million Indian workers, the largest expatriate community in the Kingdom. Even the ‘Saudisation’ of workforces, commonly known as Nitaqat, has not reduced the emigration of Indian workers to the Kingdom.

At the same time, significant moves in political engagement had to wait for India’s economic ascendance. Even though Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru (1956) and Indira Gandhi (1982) had visited the Kingdom, these visits were symbolic as India lacked political influence or economic clout. While New Delhi needed Saudi support and understanding, the converse was not true. Indian leaders were constantly seeking to limit and counter Pakistan’s influence in West Asia, especially in principal countries such as Saudi. Economic reforms initiated by the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh duo in 1991 marked a new phase, and by the end of that decade, India began to see the fruits. The reform programme transformed India’s image – from being a perennial aid recipient to an economic opportunity and market. Thus, the post-September 11 ‘Look East Policy’ of Saudi Arabia and post-reform economic ascendance of India complemented one another.

It was under these circumstances that King Abdullah in January 2006 attended India’s Republic Day celebrations as the chief guest. The visit was important for a variety of reasons; it was the first visit by a Saudi monarch to India since 1955; the Republic Day celebrations highlight India’s military potential and display its cultural diversity; and more importantly, Abdullah came to India without visiting Pakistan. Both countries signed the Delhi Declaration that highlighted their commitment to pursue strategic energy security cooperation. Abdullah’s visit was followed by the visit of former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in 2010 during which he received the rare honour of addressing the Saudi Majlis al-Shura.

In a rare and unusual move in February 2014, Prince Salman – the present King – visited India as the guest of the Vice-President. At that time, Salman was also the Crown Prince and Minister of Defence. During this visit, both sides signed a defence cooperation agreement.

The Arab Spring and its fallout in Bahrain have brought Riyadh closer to India. Shortly after Saudi-led GCC troops were sent to Manama in support of the beleaguered al-Khalifa rule, Saudi National Security Council chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan visited India in March 2011 and discussed the regional security situation.

There are other issues that resulted in Riyadh’s interests in India. Al-Saud is increasingly concerned over Iranian nuclear ambitions and the willingness of western powers to seek a negotiated political settlement over the nuclear controversy without accommodating Arab fears.

On the commercial arena, Saudi is India’s fourth largest trading partner and during 2013-14, bilateral trade stood at $48.62 billion. The trade, however, is skewed in favour of Saudi Arabia; while exports stood at $12.21 billion, India imported goods worth $36.4 billion. The bulk of the trade is dominated by oil imports, which account for 80 percent of total trade. Saudi Arabia is among the top three oil suppliers to India and supplied 18 percent of India’s total oil imports in the previous year.

Time to Capitalise

As happens to most of India’s foreign relations, India, for a long time, has not been able to capitalise on the momentum in Indo-Saudi relations due to lack of adequate follow-up measures. First and foremost, India has to move relations beyond the energy-dominated trade dimension. While oil will continue to be the dominant feature of bilateral relations, focusing exclusively on it would be a missed opportunity. India should explore the possibility of joint energy ventures, such as in the petrochemical sector located in either of the countries. Falling of oil prices is also a good opportunity to shore up strategic oil reserves for future eventuality.

Education is another arena that could add substance to bilateral relations. Minister of Human Resource Development, Arjun Singh initiated some moves in this direction. Under King Abdullah, the Kingdom began a number of initiatives in modernising education, especially in the realm of women education. A number of new institutions were opened or women were allowed to pursue subjects such as engineering, law and business administration, which for decades remained the exclusive prerogative of male students. Imparting technical education, job training or other skill development is an area where India should be able and willing to share its knowledge and expertise.

Above all, the emergence of the ISIS is another concern for both countries. For a long time, Saudi rulers were indifferent, if not tolerant, towards religious extremism. The 9/11 attacks fundamentally altered that lackadaisical approach and forced the al-Saud to recognise the challenges posed by terrorism. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has cooperated with India in counter-terrorism and deported or returned wanted terror suspects. Seen in that context, Riyadh could be an important component of India’s response to the ISIS. As the fate of 40 kidnapped workers still remains uncertain, it would be prudent on India’s part to actively engage with Riyadh in combating the menace of ISIS. While sending professional diplomats is the norm, security experts are more relevant if India wants to engage with Riyadh or enhance its cooperation. With Interior Minister Nayef as the deputy Crown Prince, sending a career diplomat will not be helpful. Thus, if Prime Minister Modi wants to transform Indo-Saudi relations, he should begin the process by sending an expert with a security-intelligence background as his next envoy to Riyadh. Will he bite the bullet and do the unexpected?

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.