The visit by Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has imparted fresh momentum to ties between India and Saudi Arabia. The high-profile visit of the Saudi royal, who is also the Kingdom’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, has built on the foundations of two earlier game-changing outings — the visit by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in 2006, which was followed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s trip to Riyadh four years later. Dr. Singh’s 2010 visit resulted in the signing of the Riyadh Declaration, which proclaimed that a “strategic partnership” between New Delhi and Riyadh had been established, spanning diverse fields including energy security, information technology and outer space. The document did not exclude a security element either, signalling that a standalone relationship between India and Saudi Arabia had been anchored, de-hyphenated from Riyadh’s long-standing ties with Islamabad. The signing of a defence pact during the Crown Prince’s visit implies that the focus imparted to military ties, during Defence Minister A.K. Antony’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2012, has been emphatically retained. An acknowledgement that a new thrust on promoting investments is required augurs well for the evolution of a substantial, multifaceted relationship.
Despite their promise, India-Saudi ties will have to be carefully nurtured. On the bilateral side, the welfare of millions of Indian workers in the Kingdom has to be ensured, especially at a time when authorities in Riyadh have embarked on a major undertaking to generate maximum employment for their own nationals, shrinking job opportunities for expatriates. The future of ties between New Delhi and Riyadh would also have to be insulated from the differing perceptions of the two countries of developments in West Asia. Besides, India has to stay clear of the crossfire between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are at loggerheads on account of the situation in Syria, and whose hostility towards each other has acquired a dangerous sectarian dimension in the region. While it bonds with Riyadh, India has an abiding interest in the simultaneous development of its relationship with Iran, which not only is a major energy-supplier but — after the American withdrawal later this year — is bound to play a pivotal role in Afghanistan. Simultaneously, India has no basis to grudge Saudi Arabia’s “all weather” ties with Pakistan, so long as they do not harm New Delhi’s core interests. In fact, distancing itself from zero-sum expectations, India, if invited, can turn its proximity with Riyadh and Tehran to its advantage, by making its contribution in defusing tensions between the two regional heavyweights.