The Saudi Crown Prince Visit: Getting The Diplomatic Domain Right
Prince Mohammad bin Salman has the clout and capability to rein in Pakistan, and Prime Minister Modi knows this too well.
Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia is in New Delhi, and definitely not at the best of times. As an important international personality, his visit in less turbulent times may have been looked forward to by New Delhi but the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke protocol to personally receive him on arrival proves that MBS is a very welcome face in New Delhi.
There are many reasons for that, not the least being the fact that he has just visited Pakistan and it is likely that he will make an effort to cool the security environment of the subcontinent after Pakistan sponsored the dastardly terror attack at Pulwama, which cost India 40 precious lives.
His influence over Pakistan is of a high order since Saudi Arabia has been Pakistan’s partner for long, and even now in a time of economic crisis in Pakistan, is doing the bailout act to the greatest extent.
India as a pragmatic and mature nation is not looking at war as the only means of forcing Pakistan to rein in the rogue elements operating from its soil. While war is certainly one choice, the diplomatic option through someone as influential as MBS remains an important course.
Saudi Arabia may not be the most popular of countries, especially in the liberal and democratic world but the strategic clout it carries is larger than usually perceived. Two things contribute towards making it strategically significant.
First, that it is the custodian of the two holiest shrines of Islam at Mecca and Medina; thus over a billion people who follow the Islamic faith and revere the shrines desire at some point of their lives to visit the land of their prophet as part of the annual pilgrimage or Haj.
Second, the country is blessed by nature and has a plethora of hydrocarbon wealth which came into prominence after 1973 when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) became an all-powerful entity and the price of oil rose dramatically bringing tremendous wealth to Saudi Arabia.
MBS was suddenly elevated to the position of heir apparent about three years ago in a kind of palace coup. The current monarch King Salman is aging and it is MBS who is virtually in charge of Saudi Arabia today; we have no doubt about that.
MBS has a vision which he is implementing; it is all about taking Saudi Arabia into an age when oil revenues may no longer run the economy. He is working towards that vision in many ways and has followed a clear policy externally and internally with a date in sight – 2032.
Externally, he has ensured a personal relationship with US President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner and thereby made Saudi Arabia one of the strongest allies of the US, quite unlike the Barack Obama period when the relationship appeared to be on the rocks and special efforts had to be made to revive it.
MBS has also ensured a strong relationship with Israel in order to counter balance the rising influence of Iran, especially in the crucial Levant area. Thus, Saudi Arabia actually enjoys strong relationships with two of India’s strategic partners and the mutuality of interests is therefore well identified.
India is one of those nations which have a good relationship based on many areas of interest with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two leading nations which give weight to the ideological, sectarian conflicts between Shias and Sunnis. This brings balance to the ideological challenges within Islam in India.
Why is Saudi Arabia strategically important to India? Prime Minister Modi has obviously not invested his time and broken protocol for the sake of anything. He does appreciate MBS’ capability to rein in Pakistan given the amount of clout he has built up in that nation. It is what MBS can do for India that has got the Prime Minister to take the decision he took.
Firstly, almost 20 per cent of India’s oil requirements come from Saudi Arabia in a steady flow without any encumbrances. Almost 2.8 million Indians work in Saudi Arabia, sending home a large quantum of remittances. As an expatriate community, the Indian community in Saudi Arabia has been exceptional in work commitment and discipline with no involvement in activities which could act as a threat to the host country.
With India’s economy continuing to grow, the scope for Saudi Arabia to sell energy to India will remain a lucrative opportunity for long. This is especially important in the light of the fact that US dependence on Saudi Arabia for its energy needs has dwindled ever since its shale gas revolution has come into being.
Saudi Arabia is an important and influential member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and much of the GCC’s outlook is driven by the two young leaders – MBS of Saudi Arabia and Mohammad bin Zayed (MBZ) of the UAE who carry a similarity of ideas. We are aware of MBS’ attempt to partially open up Saudi society with some degree of women empowerment. Similarly the recent visit of Pope Francis to the UAE was considered a path breaking event in the Middle East.
MBS could well attempt something similar which would play in favour of countering the ideological radicalism rampant in many parts of the Middle East. As the core centre of the Islamic faith what Saudi Arabia does in terms of major decisions, which have a politico-ideological content, goes all the way in influencing the faith; at least the Sunni element of Islam.
With India, Saudi Arabia and Israel enjoying a good and strong relationship it helps in cooperation in various fields such as intelligence and counter terrorism. With India having an equally strong relationship with Iran, it can always be a facilitator to smoothen relations between Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia. While its services have never been utilised towards this end, the scope remains even as the international strategic scenario undergoes change.
On the economic side, the oil company Saudi Aramaco, is in pursuit of the stalled $44 billion investment in the building of one of the largest refineries in India, on the west coast. Hopefully, it will materialise in an area other than Ratnagiri. Trade is not at as high a level as expected and the figure of $28 billion has ample scope for enhancement too.
The fact that the Jamal Khashoggi affair, which besmirched MBS reputation internationally, has been studiously ignored in the Indian media reflects pragmatism as it is not in India’s interest to raise issues which do not involve its direct interests. The media has been mature and sensible in this regard. However, Yemen remains an issue which hangs like a dead weight around Saudi Arabia’s neck. Sooner than later, MBS will have to admit his inability to bring a conflict termination stage to the situation in Yemen.
The visit of MBS has come to be hyphenated with the prevailing security environment in South Asia. While it is against Indian policy to involve any third party in our on-going disputes, especially with Pakistan, it may not be wrong on the part of the government to sensitise MBS about the dangers of Pakistan’s continuing proxy war in Kashmir. He has a strong grip over the Pakistani political leadership and the Pakistan army and the serious messaging which he could do, perhaps, no other leader could do as effectively.
Lastly, it’s important that India pursues its Middle East policy with due diligence and based upon balance, even as it courts the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince, but the fact that Prince Mohammad bin Salman will play a very key role in future international politics does make the current visit a particularly significant one.
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