India Intensifies Engagement With Saudi Arabia

India and Saudi Arabia enjoy traditional friendly ties. Both are strategic partners and are working together on various fronts. It is in this context that India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval undertook a two-day visit to Saudi Arabia. The NSA met with Crown Prince Muhammed Bin-Salman and held talks with his Saudi counterpart Musaid Bin-Aiban. A number of important bilateral, regional and international issues were discussed during the meetings. One of the key issues that came up for discussion was the modalities for setting up the India-Saudi Strategic Partnership Council co-chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman.

Significantly, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan had visited Riyadh last month en route his trip to the US for participating in the 74th session of the UNGA. Given Pakistan’s diplomatic offensive on India’s decision to revoke Article 370 of her Constitution that accorded special status to Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), Khan’s visit to Saudi Arabia acquired importance. The main agenda of Khan’s visit was to enlist Saudi support for Pakistani position on India’s decision.

Mr. Doval’s visit thus was aimed at appraising the Saudi leadership of the Indian position and underline the problem India faces due to the cross-border terrorism. Saudi Arabia too has been a victim of terrorism. In September, two of Aramco’s oil processing facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais were targeted in drone attacks apparently by the Houthi militias of Yemen. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) too had put Saudi Arabia on the top of its targets.

Both India and Saudi Arabia are at the forefront of fighting terrorism in South and West Asia. Riyadh has taken a leadership role in shaping the opinion in the Muslim world against extremism and terrorism. India’s strong position on fighting terror is recognised by the Saudi leadership and this has led to close cooperation between Indian and Saudi security agencies to combat radicalism and counter terrorism. The security cooperation has intensified under Prime Minister Modi.

The joint statement issued after the visit of Crown Prince Bin-Salman to New Delhi in February 2019 noted the need for dismantling of terror infrastructure and cutting off financial networks sponsoring terrorism. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has come forward to condemn terrorist attacks in India including the attack in Pulwama in January this year where over 40 Indian soldiers lost their lives and earlier the attacks in Pathankot and Uri in January and September 2016 respectively.

After the Pulwama attack and Indian retaliation through Balakot strikes, Saudi Arabia has engaged in diplomacy to ease tensions in South Asia. New Delhi firmly maintains that J&K is an internal matter of India and the decision to revoke Article 370 has been taken in view of bringing the state within the mainstream of political and economic developments of India.

The other important issue that was on the agenda of the NSA Doval’s Saudi visit was Pakistan’s proposed blacklisting by the Financial Actions Task Force (FATF) at its plenary session later this month. In 2018, the FATF had put Pakistan on its ‘grey-list’ for its continued sponsorship of terrorism. According to FATF’s Asia Pacific Group (APG), Islamabad is yet to fulfil most of its commitments on ending terrorist financing networks and can be put in the blacklist during the upcoming FATF meeting. Saudi Arabia’s support against state-sponsorship of terrorism at the FATF session can be an important boost for Indo-Saudi ties.

India’s bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia have improved significantly in the last few years and the visit of Prime Minister Modi to Riyadh in April 2016 laid the foundation for a new direction in the strategic partnership. The two sides attach critical importance to the bilateral relations and have given special attention to enhancing bilateral trade and investments and strengthening security and counter-terrorism cooperation.

Script: Dr. Mohd. Muddassir quamar, Strategic Analyst on West Asia