Somewhere between disappointment and euphoria
Let there be no doubt. Pakistan remains Saudi Arabia’s closest ally in the region. Despite talk of ‘de-hyphenation’, by no means has Saudi Arabia abandoned its approach of looking at India through the prism of its relations with Pakistan. What is true, however, is that there is an inkling of change in the way the kingdom perceives India — as a potentially large, less assertive, buyer of its oil, and an growing economic power in its own right. And as far as any sort of change is concerned, an inkling counts for a lot in Saudi Arabia.
In the past Saudi Arabia has relied on Pakistan to provide it with soldiers, military pilots, missiles and a proxy nuclear capability. Saudi Arabia’s own threat perceptions have gotten worse with Iran on the nuclear weapons path. The long-standing security relationship with Pakistan will therefore remain important. More importantly, its relationship with the United States provides it with a security umbrella that is the primary guarantor of stability in and around the kingdom. In recent years, though, both these relationships have caused the Saudi government discomfort. The Saudis do not want to be associated with al-Qaeda and nuclear proliferation questions which colour its relations with Pakistan. Association with America imposes costs, that the monarchy would be all to keen to avoid, especially if it has to face down domestic political opposition. Seen in this context, closer relations with China and India, both emerging regional powers and energy consumers, will help the Saudis better balance their security relationships.
While gradualism may suit Saudi tastes, what can India expect from the kingdom’s changing worldview? It is clear that King Abdullah’s government sees jihadi terrorism as a threat to itself, but it is not completely clear that it sympathises with India’s own struggle against al-Qaeda and its constituents. Far too often, anti-India jihadi terrorists have found the kingdom a convenient transit point and an ready source of funds. India should attempt to ensure that King Abdullah’s visit results in a serious commitment by Saudi authorities not to tolerate such activities on their soil. Putting this on the bilateral agenda would be far more beneficial to India that getting sidetracked by discussions on securing a second-class membership at the OIC. It is also too early to hope that Saudi Arabia will help India extend its influence in the Middle East
According to its embassy in Riyadh, India is Saudi Arabia’s fourth largest trading partner. In terms of bilateral trade (excluding oil), India now runs a trade surplus with Saudi Arabia. Just five years ago, it was the other way around. Indian exports grew at about 20% in 2003-04. Though engaged in a misguided approach to secure more jobs for its citizens, the kingdom has drawn credit for its economic reforms under King Abdullah. The economy grew at about 6.2% in 2005 and is expected to sustain such rates. It has also become a WTO member. Apart from energy, India would do well to propose arrangements that would make it easier for Indian technology, education, textile and pharmaceutical firms to address the Saudi market.
State visits are primarily about symbolism. King Abdullah’s visit is no different. Saudi Arabia is taking baby steps towards a different relationship with India. Though that may be too gradual for India’s liking, it is nevertheless a welcome development.