As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Saudi Arabia on Saturday after attending the Fourth Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, New Delhi is eagerly waiting for the outcome of the premier’s meeting with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in Riyadh.
Prime Minister Modi’s two-day Saudi visit is crucial for the South Asian country, which has hinted a change in its policy towards West Asia. In recent times, New Delhi has taken a number of steps to strengthen ties with Riyadh mainly to counter neighbouring Pakistan’s influence in the region. Ahead of Modi’s arrival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and the US came together to sanction Pakistani individuals and terrorist entities, including Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), at the Nuclear Security Summit. India, which believes that Saudi’s help is required to corner Pakistan in South Asia, welcomed the move.
Earlier, Indian foreign policy experts advised the Modi administration to bolster ties with Saudi Arabia, saying that friendship with Riyadh could help New Delhi safeguard its strategic and geopolitical interests in West Asia. Saudi Arabia, commonly known as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, is one of the key sources for India’s energy needs.
Moreover, the entire West Asian region has been in a state of flux and turmoil for the past few years. The ongoing civil war in Syria and Yemen, and the rise of the Islamic State (IS) have started posing a serious threat to many countries, including India. In such a scenario, India plans to transform its friendship with Saudi Arabia into a strategic partnership.
However, India is well aware of the fact that it will be really difficult to balance its West Asia policy. Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia certainly indicates a shift in India’s broader West Asia policy. As India also maintains “friendly” ties with Iran and Israel, it will have to work hard to “do business” with Saudi. The successful conclusion of the nuclear deal between Iran and the Western powers has revived the Shia-Sunni (read Iran-Saudi) rivalry in West Asia and it becomes crucial for India to balance its foreign policy in an attempt to expand diplomatic footprint in the region.
The top political leadership in Riyadh knows that India is jointly financing Chabahar Port with Iran, as it will give New Delhi access to the oil and gas resources in that country and the Central Asian states. The Chabahar Port project will also help India compete with China that is developing a special economic zone in Pakistan’s Gwadar Port. Indian Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan recently announced that he would push for state-run firms to win development rights for the vast Farzad B gas field in Iran during his April 9-10 visit to Tehran. “In Iran, our primary interest is in exploration and production. We have old engagements with Iran and we continued to buy oil from Iran in difficult times,” said the Indian minister.
Now, New Delhi has a tough job on hand and that is to ensure parallel levels of engagement with Riyadh and Tehran, if it hopes to maintain its momentum in West Asia. From India’s perspective, peace and stability in West Asia is absolutely essential. If the current situation is allowed to deteriorate, it could lead to a nightmarish scenario and India would have no other option, but to repatriate millions of its people from the region to safety. So, the Modi government has decided to engage with all the key players in West Asia.
In its latest press release, Mumbai-based Indian think-tank ‘Gateway House’ explained that the last 10 years had signalled the Saudi intention of building closer relations with India based on their immense crude oil resources and India’s growing market and skill sets. With a new king on the throne since January 2015 and the on-going turmoil in West Asia, it is in New Delhi’s interest to nurture the relationship. Saudi Arabia is India’s largest crude oil supplier, accounting for about one-fifth of its total imports. There has also been progress in the bilateral relationship on areas of mutual interest, such as political, economic, security and defence issues.
So, the talking points for Prime Minister Modi’s ongoing visit to Saudi Arabia include the obvious: oil, diaspora and economic engagement. What remains to be seen is how both countries’ differing relations with Iran and Pakistan might affect the dialogue.