MBS’ visit gives India a chance to reshape ties

Talmiz Ahmad

Since the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2, the kingdom and its ally, Donald Trump’s White House, are trying to distance Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from this deed and blame “rogue” government officials.
Saudi Arabia is also making a major effort to highlight the business opportunities that the country offers. This has certainly worked with the Trump presidency, which has been touting America’s lucrative defence and business deals with the kingdom. US President Donald Trump has also pushed Saudi Arabia closer to Israel, so that they are now viewed as firm allies in effecting regime change in Iran and promoting the “deal of the century” that will bring lasting peace in Palestine.
Saudi Arabia is also making direct appeals to global business — most recently at Davos where the Saudi delegation, led by top ministers, promoted high-value investment opportunities.
To buttress this image of business-as-usual, the Crown Prince is visiting five Asian countries in mid-February — Pakistan, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and finally India. He can expect a warm welcome in all capitals where his generous chequebook and prospects of investments will make him an attractive visitor.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan was one of very few world leaders at the investment conference in Riyadh in October, just after the murder; and he was immediately rewarded with $6 billion in balance of payments support and deferred oil payments. Since then, the kingdom has announced a $10-billion investment in an oil refinery at Gwadar and other multi-billion-dollar investments in petro-chemical, mining and renewable energy sectors.
The visit to India will appeal to domestic constituencies in both countries — on election eve, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will bask in the embrace of the Crown Prince, whose nation is the guardian of Islam’s two holy shrines and a major political, energy and economic role-player, while the Crown Prince will enjoy engaging with a prominent world leader heading a country that is a significant energy and economic partner.
But, beyond cosmetics, there is much the two leaders can achieve both bilaterally and in terms of their regional interests.
Both countries are committed to establishing long-term energy ties based on investments and joint ventures. The kingdom is anxious to invest in the Ratnagiri refinery; but this project has been delayed by local resistance. Failure to move forward will harm India’s image as a business-friendly country. Indian companies could also partner Saudi Arabia’s national oil company Aramco in development projects at home.
Similarly, it will good for our corporate sector to look at business opportunities in Saudi Arabia, particularly the defence sector, where the kingdom would like to move towards self-sufficiency. This can be readily achieved in the soft goods sector, though our major companies can work with local enterprises in high-tech areas as well.
Again, the Crown Prince’s “Vision 2030” programme calls for massive recruitment of Saudi nationals in the private sector — here, Indian companies can bring in local youth in sectors such as IT, education, healthcare and leisure and tourism.
In the political arena, cooperation in counter-terrorism has been remarkably successful. It emerges from the two countries’ shared concerns relating to extremist violence in the region which, the kingdom knows, is largely sponsored by state actors in Pakistan. The strategic partnership to which India and Saudi Arabia have committed themselves will be meaningful only if they can work to improve the regional security scenario.
While ostensibly the kingdom is close to the United States and perceives a deep “existential” threat from Iran, there are indications that Saudi Arabia recognises the futility of military conflicts in Syria and Yemen and the severe limits to the resilience of its ties with the Trump administration. Not only is the latter unpredictable and unreliable, it is also keen to withdraw from conflict zones in West Asia.
Again, the Saudi monarch, King Salman, has made it clear that he does not buy the US’ “deal” for Palestine, will not betray Palestinian interests and is not keen to project ties with Israel on the world stage. Hence, to balance its links with the US, Saudi Arabia is carefully building its energy, economic and political ties with Russia.
In this background, India should discuss with the Crown Prince the next steps in promoting regional security, first, by insisting that Pakistan drop its backing for extremist elements against India, exemplified by the horrendous Jaish-e-Mohammed attack on CRPF personnel in Kashmir, and, second, by pursuing the peace process in Afghanistan.
Saudi Arabia now needs to be more proactive and robust in weaning Pakistan’s armed forces away from their use of jihad as state policy. Given the recent burgeoning economic and defence ties between Pakistan and the kingdom, the latter should be a more effective role-player in this regard.
In Afghanistan, for the last few years, Saudi Arabia has been actively involved in pushing the Taliban towards negotiations with the Americans to facilitate the withdrawal of US troops. Now, with the Taliban in discussion with the Americans in Qatar and with senior Afghan figures in Moscow, the stage is set for an important breakthrough in the peace process.
At this point much could still go wrong — the US could display reluctance to affect a quick military withdrawal or the Pakistanis could encourage the Taliban to seek political domination in the country to the exclusion of other parties.
This is an opportunity for India to shape a new role. It should encourage Saudi Arabia to persuade Pakistan to play a constructive role in Afghanistan that would promote unity and stability in that war-torn country. Deeper Indo-Saudi cooperation on Afghanistan, though novel, will reshape the traditional power equations in that country for the better.
Another important area for Indo-Saudi dialogue would be the promotion of confidence-building measures between the kingdom and Iran through a diplomatic initiative shaped and led by India. The Crown Prince’s visit will provide an excellent opportunity to take this idea forward. Otherwise the value of the encounter will be lost in the quagmire of short-term advantage and ultimately meaningless opportunism.