India oils its Saudi Arabia tiesNEW DELHI - It has taken a half century for a Saudi monarch to visit India but the main guest for the country's Republic Day celebrations on January 26 will be King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz.
King Saud was the last monarch from Saudi Arabia to visit New Delhi - in 1955 - and the record of Indian leaders traveling to the kingdom hasn't been much better. Former prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi visited Saudi Arabia in 1956 and 1982 respectively, though Cold War alignments made the two nations extremely suspicious of each other.
The arrival of King Abdullah, who is also prime minister and hence head of government as well, is not a routine matter. A foreign head of state or government being invited to be chief guest at the Republic Day parade in the heart of India's capital that showcases India's military might as well as democratic traditions, is considered a measure of the importance India attaches to its relationship with a country. Saudi Arabia remains important to India as home to Mecca and Medina, the holiest shrines to the 150 million Indian Muslims. The country hosts more than 1.5 million Indian passport holders, the largest expatriate community in Saudi Arabia. However, New Delhi wants to ensure that bridges with Saudi Arabia move beyond religion and employment.
One important aspect is energy security. India's engagement with Riyadh is the result of a well thought out process at a time when New Delhi's relations with Iran are pegged on the way Washington perceives Tehran, and Iraq remains in tatters. India for a long time has enjoyed ties with Iran and Iraq, which have helped it meet its energy requirements. However, in the context of Tehran's aggressive anti-Western tirades, independent nuclear program, and the occupation of Iraq, India has been looking to extend its influence beyond the Persian Gulf to the Saudi peninsula.
It is apparent that India does not want to be held hostage for its oil needs to Iran, which threatened to renege on some of its oil and gas supply commitments after the September vote at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), when New Delhi aligned with Western powers against Tehran. The next IAEA vote is due November 24, with hectic diplomatic parleys already under way. As part of ongoing maneuvering, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister, Mehdi Safari, is scheduled to be in New Delhi this week to speak with the government, while at the same time the US has repeatedly emphasized the importance it attaches to India's support on the Iran issue.
It is in this context that the Saudi kingdom has become one of the most important countries to ensure India's energy security and leverage against Iran if the need arises. The combination of high economic growth and dwindling domestic oil resources have considerably raised India's reliance on imported crude, which presently meets more than 70% of its requirements. Riyadh remains the largest supplier of oil to India. Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producer in the world at 8.8 million barrels a day in 2004 and is the main force in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which ultimately decides world oil prices.
New Delhi has quietly engaged Riyadh in the recent past despite the big-ticket announcements between New Delhi and Tehran on oil and gas deals, which include the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Finance Minister P Chidambaram visited Riyadh in April, and Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar went to Saudi Arabia in March.
Saudi Petroleum Minister Ali Al-Naimi visited New Delhi in January to attend the first round table of Asian ministers on regional cooperation in the oil and gas economy. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has considerable knowledge of the workings of Riyadh, having visited Saudi Arabia as finance minister in December 1994.
Some observers say there has also been a shift in Riyadh's perception of India, from that of a poor country to that of a market that needs to be explored. "The visit of King Abdullah is the culmination of a process that has been under way for several years," a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia has been quoted as saying. "Its strategic significance lay in the fact that Saudi Arabia is no longer linking its relationship with India to ties with Pakistan."
Of equal importance to India is the Saudi shift from its past of promoting radical and jihadi Islamists like Osama bin Laden and the Saudi perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The intricate web developed by Saudi intelligence to wage jihad against the erstwhile Soviet Union in the early 1980s in Afghanistan has been well documented. However, there is a realization that such efforts have eaten away the innards of Saudi society. Terrorism has since turned on Riyadh, with the country now a victim of the monster it helped create.
The Saudi decision to take on Islamic radicals who promote terror is critical for India. India will look to Riyadh for security inputs to tackle terror outfits such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), which continues to draw cadres and monetary assistance from Saudi Arabia. The Indian police claim to have busted the LeT members who orchestrated last month's triple bomb attack in New Delhi that left more than 70 dead and 200 injured. The man who helped found the LeT, Sheikh Abdul Aziz, is reportedly a resident of Saudi Arabia.
Indian agencies will be seeking the cooperation of Riyadh to investigate the international nature of such crimes. It is due to improved relations with the United Arab Emirates that India has managed to plug holes in the dragnet for underworld figures who perpetrate crimes in the country, including terror attacks. The perception of India in Europe as a "responsible" nation has also led to the extradition of dreaded gangster Abu Salem from Portugal, which is expected to lead to several breakthroughs including crucial information about the 1993 Mumbai blasts that killed more than 250 people and injured at least 1,000.
It is recognition of the structural changes in Saudi Arabia as well as its commitment to help poor countries that has resulted in the kingdom's recent admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Riyadh applied to be member of the WTO (then know as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT ) more than a decade ago. Much of the delay in the membership talks has been due to economic issues, but there is also a political aspect. Washington has said that membership will boost reform in the Muslim country, and that the kingdom has explicitly undertaken to allow trade with all WTO members, including Israel - which remains subject to a formal boycott by many Arab countries.
India has welcomed Saudi membership of the WTO. In a statement, New Delhi said: "You can't keep a very important country like Saudi Arabia, which has a fourth of the world's oil reserves, out of the multilateral system. By their accession, the global trading system is strengthened, becomes more predictable."
According to a comment in the Hindustan Times: "The visit [of King Abdullah to New Delhi] is as much a part of a larger realignment of India's foreign and security policy as that of Saudi Arabia. The manifestations of the Indian change have been visible through the year in breakthrough agreements with the US, Japan, China and the EU, as well as the emphasis being placed on economic diplomacy with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation). The Saudi shift, no less dramatic, has been marked by its battles with domestic radical Islamists and underscored by a monarchical succession. It has been marked most recently by the Saudi admission to the World Trade Organization."
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.