India & Saudi Arabia : On new found love

Saudi Arabia has been unraveling its geopolitical desires across middle-east for quite some time. However, during the past years, courtesy of an oil-revenue boom, Saudis are shifting their interventionist tactics from proxy to direct military intervention. From crushing the legitimate protest in Bahrain to bombing Yemen and hounding Lebanon, fossilized Abdullah and now Salman have left no stone unturned, or bombed, to assert their position as a shot caller in middle-east. They have sent armies across King Fahad causeway to the tiny nation of Bahrain and besieged Yemen to starvation. Hadn’t it been for Putin’s murderous incursion into Syria, Salman, in concert with Turkey’s dictator Erdogan, was ready to deploy his air-force separately of US-led anti-ISIS coalition.

Fighting a sectarian air-war in Yemen, Saudis have made a mockery of humanitarian and human-rights laws; from using indiscriminate cluster bombs to decimating hospitals and marketplaces. But the absence of formidable ground force means that they haven’t able to achieve any of the set military objectives. Houthis still control much of the country, including the capital Sana’a. Saudi-backed, ousted government of Mansour Hadi faces opposition even in its stronghold of Aden. Al-Qaeda virtually rules over a state in south-eastern port of Mukalla with a constant revenue stream and looted reserves worth $100 million. Isis is also on the rise.

Ground force has never been a forte of the kingdom. Throughout history, the superrich, laid-back Saudis have sought foot-soldiers from Pakistanis and Americans. How American military presence in the holy land gave a serious edge to Bin Laden’s propaganda is a matter of another essay altogether.

However, when Salman and his over ambitious son cum defense minister Mohammad, for their turf-war in Yemen, requested military power from Pakistan last year, their traditional ally defied the diktat. Pakistan’s parliament overwhelmingly voted against any military intervention and a flurry of newspaper editorials and public opinion hailed the decision. Nawaz Sharif had failed to reciprocate the assistance he received from Saudis when Parvez Musharraf ousted him from power.

Pakistani defiance might have also been reinforced by their recent pivot towards Russia and China. In late 2014, they signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia containing a covert clause for arms purchases. China has also pledged to invest around $46 billion in Pakistan, substantial part of which will surely go into military coffers. The controversial project that includes expansion of Gwadar port in Baluchistan is set to link western China to the Persian Gulf, contending Dubai and Doha as economic hubs in the region. Although, there is a strong indigenous opposition to the project, Indians alongwith Emiratis and Qataris might find a common cause in derailing it. Pakistani military is also creating a new special division to protect Chinese interests inside the country. This must have left Saudis fuming. If Sharif can expend 10,000 troops and a two-star general for Beijing, why is Riyadh’s destructive war in Yemen a no-go? Despite the fact that Sharif and his army chief, Raheel Sharif (no relation) flew to the kingdom not long after Yemen fiasco and reassured the monarchy of Pakistani allegiance with a joint military exercise, Saudis seem not to have forgotten the betrayal.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi receiving guard of honor in Riyadh
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi receiving guard of honor in Riyadh

Saudi bitterness has been more than evident by kingdom’s overture towards Pakistan’s archrival India. During Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Riyadh, Salman personally conferred Saudi Arabia’s highest civilian award, the King Abdulaziz Sash, upon India’s Prime Minister. The two countries also signed agreements for intelligence sharing, trade and defense cooperation that includes holding joint military exercises; Saudis shamelessly dodging the fact the Indian forces have been engaged in illegal occupation and massive human rights abuses in Kashmir, northeast and central India.

The act also created a lot of justified resentment in Muslim communities across online spaces, considering the fact that Modi has been accused of leading a communal pogrom- he was the Chief Minister- against Muslims during 2002 communal riots in the Indian state of Gujarat. As high as 2500 Muslims were killed, according to Christophe Jafferlot of Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po). A 2012 report by Human Rights Watch accused officials of the Gujarat state government, led again by “Chief Minister Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)” of failing to “conduct serious investigations and obstructing justice” for the victims of “2002 anti-Muslim riots.” For same reasons, Mr. Modi also remained on the US State Department’s visa blacklist from 2005 until Obama administration lifted the ban in 2014. In a 2013 interview with Reuters, Modi infamously analogized the wholesale killing of Muslims in Gujarat with “puppy coming under a car”. India has also seen a spiraling rise in communal and caste-based violence since Modi’s far-right BJP overtook the reins of power. Muslims have been lynched for suspected consumption of beef and trading cattle; everything from academic autonomy to welfare schemes has been encroached upon.

Although Modi cannot even come close to the scale of mass-murder that successive Saudi regimes have overseen in their country and neighborhood, Salman adorning an Indian-Hindu nationalist with highest civilian award is surely going to raise eyebrows in Islamabad- fulfilling the primary purpose of this gesture.

Saudi Arabia’s dwindling market share in oil may be another crucial factor forcing the pivot towards India. During the past 3 years, Saudis lost ground in 9 out of 15 most important oil markets across the world including US. Losing ground to US fracking, Russia, Iraq and with post-sanctions Iran set to unleash its massive oil reserves across global markets, Saudi Arabia might also be trying to appease the Indian oil-hunger early by these sweet gestures. Currently, India imports 18% of its oil from Saudis. There is surely room for more. Also, Saudi Arabia’s ambitions to diversify its economy need the massive Indian market. Modi’s excessively capital-friendly regime shall come in handy for that purpose.

On the other hand, whether Pakistan substantially responds to Rouhani’s approach, threatening the traditional power-equations across Asia remains to be seen. However, the hypocrisy of Saudi’s self imposed position as a “leader of Muslims” should be crystal clear by now, especially after the Kingdom’s latest adventures vis-à-vis Modi’s India and Sisi’s Egypt.


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Umar Lateef Misgar Written by:

Umar Lateef Misgar studies International Relations at Islamic University of Kashmir.

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