Prime Minister Narendra Modi will soon visit Brussels, Washington and Riyadh. While the visit to Belgium to attend the European Union-India summit and announce the restart of Free Trade Agreement negotiations is long overdue, and the visit to the U.S. for the Nuclear Security Summit is an old calendar commitment, it is the visit to Saudi Arabia that makes the loudest statement on Mr. Modi’s foreign policy agenda this year.
In bilateral terms, Mr. Modi’s Riyadh stop has numerous possibilities. The first is the elevation of ties between the two countries that Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir spoke of during his visit to Delhi earlier this month. This involves upgrading three key agreements — the energy security partnership of 2008, the strategic partnership of 2010 (which has included robust anti-terror cooperation), and the defence partnership of 2014, signed just months before the Modi government was sworn in — and melding them to form the basis of a new relationship.
The second possibility, which is equally important, is improving the trade and investment relationship. Bilateral trade at about $40 billion (lower this year because of falling oil prices) must be built beyond its current oil dependence, say officials, and India is keen to see Saudi investments in India on a par with its expectations from the United Arab Emirates. Perhaps this is why Mr. Modi has chosen to stop at Riyadh first, even though he had committed to visiting two of Saudi Arabia’s rivals, Israel and Iran, at the earliest.
Finally, there are emerging avenues for partnerships that the two countries want to explore. As oil revenues are lower, Saudi Arabia is keen to project itself as a ‘kingdom of dreams’, a hub for manufacturing and technology. In particular, the Saudi government is pitching its mega project, the King Abdullah Economic City, with a deep-sea port as a connector between the East and the West, and wants India to see it as a gateway to its new forays into Africa.
Given that nearly half of India’s seven million-strong Gulf diaspora works in Saudi Arabia, with families back in India dependent on them, India is keen to see new jobs created for them. It is no secret that both countries would like to move away from the conventional image of exploited Indian labourers living in regimented Saudi labour camps. “This is far from the reality of the three million-plus Indians who live and work in Saudi Arabia,” says former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Talmiz Ahmad. “Many of them are top-end engineers and managers in Saudi projects, and it is unfortunate that a few horrific incidents and criminal acts involving Indians are extrapolated to represent the whole reality.” The truth is that recent negative reports — of a housemaid’s hand being severed in Saudi Arabia allegedly by her employer, or of the Saudi diplomat accused of keeping maids as sexual slaves in Delhi — have cast a shadow on ties, and had forced the Prime Minister to put off his visit to Riyadh more than once. Instead, both governments want to add a more positive and modern gloss to their ties. It is no coincidence that scientific and mathematical collaborations between Indian and Saudi Arabian researchers have seen the sharpest increase in the past few years.
Mr. Modi’s visit will be watched most closely for its geopolitical signalling. In the subcontinent, it comes a year after ties between Saudi Arabia and its closest ally Pakistan were strained, when the Pakistani Parliament shot down a request to send troops to boost Saudi action in Yemen (which has left more than 3,000 dead). In contrast, during a telephone call to negotiate for Indian ships and planes to evacuate citizens, Prime Minister Modi went as far as to commend Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and hope for a quick resolution of the region’s challenges “under [King Salman’s] leadership”.
Since then, Pakistan has made many attempts to make amends, but the refusal to join the Yemen bombing campaign as well as some ambivalence on joining the Saudi-led coalition to fight the Islamic State have affected what was once seen as the most closely woven relationship. In the run-up to Mr. Modi’s visit, Pakistani newspapers have written about the disquiet in Islamabad over closer India-Saudi ties, suggesting that the sudden trip by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief General Raheel Sharif to the Kingdom earlier this month was an attempt at reassurance rather than the military exercises they viewed together there.
Ties with the U.S., the Kingdom’s strongest international ally, are under a strain, as the Saudi government battles allegations of funding IS fighters even as it watches its arch-rival Iran bask in new-found international acceptance. Stung by this shifting narrative, the Kingdom’s most prominent diplomat Prince Turki bin Faisal recently wrote an angry article published in Arab papers titled “Mr. Obama, we are not ‘free riders’”. “Is it because you have pivoted to Iran so much that you equate the Kingdom’s 80 years of constant friendship with America to an Iranian leadership that continues to describe America as the biggest enemy,” he asked, listing what he claimed was Iran’s support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even as he admitted that Saudi Arabia trains and funds Syrian “freedom fighters”.
Saudi Arabia’s other major ally China is attempting a similar shift. To the surprise of many, President Xi Jinping added Iran to his tour of Saudi Arabia and Egypt in January. While oil reserves were the currency of the past, connectivity is seen as the coinage for power in the future, and China’s entire focus at present is on the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. Iran plays a major part in OBOR as a connector to Central Asia as well as West Asia, not Saudi Arabia.
It is against this backdrop that Mr. Modi is trying to shore up ties with Saudi Arabia. It will be a visit high on potential, but in a region that is equally high on tensions, the Prime Minister will have to walk a tightrope.
Both governments want to add positivity to their ties even as the Kingdom's relationships with Pakistan and the U.S. are under a strain