February 28, 2010 ☼ energy security ☼ Foreign Affairs ☼ India ☼ Iran ☼ jihadis ☼ Middle East ☼ nuclear deterrence ☼ Pakistan ☼ Persian Gulf ☼ Realism ☼ realpolitik ☼ Saudi Arabia ☼ Security ☼ United States
This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.
At a recent conference in Abu Dhabi on emerging powers and the Middle East, one of the arguments I made was that a stable Afghanistan requires a balance of two distinct sets of powers—India-Iran-Russia on the one hand, and China-Pakistan-Saudi Arabia on the other. Even so, I suggested, Saudi Arabia (and the Gulf Arab states) would be better off not wholly aligning themselves to China, because they would be better off by balancing the two Asian powers than hitching themselves to any one of them.
The Saudi Arabian government has unparalleled clout in Pakistan—not only does it have influence over almost all of Pakistan’s power centres, it is also popular with the masses. Riyadh has managed Pakistan masterfully. While there is a Saudi-Pakistan nuclear nexus (and a Saudi-China ballistic missile nexus) it is focused on Riyadh’s perception of the strategic threat from Iran. And while the Saudi Arabian regime continues to promote its version of Islam across the world—including India—it also recognises that global jihadi terrorism undermines its own interests.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, like any other state, is deeply interested in its own survival and security—just as it uses Islam to promote its interests, it has not shied away from putting down any threats to its own survival. It allowed French special forces to storm the Grand Mosque at Mecca in 1979, it allowed US forces to operate from its soil against Iraq and it has not allowed the Palestinian struggle to come in the way of a modus vivendi with Israel.
Given all this, it makes good sense for India to engage Saudi Arabia on managing the security threat emanating from Pakistan. Shashi Tharoor is right when he said “Saudi Arabia of course has a long and close relationship with Pakistan but that makes Saudi Arabia all the more valuable interlocutor for us” (via Smita Prakash/ANI). Introducing the special issue of Pragati in February 2009, we had argued that the dynamics of Pakistan’s relationship with United States, China and Saudi Arabia are changing and that “there is an opportunity for India to engage in bold, imaginative diplomacy to galvanise the international community to radically change Pakistan’s course.”
Recognising Saudi Arabia as an interlocutor on Pakistan brings Riyadh’s role above the table. India must compel the Kingdom to take responsibility for the actions of its wards in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Even if religious solidarity, personal relationships and the nuclear nexus are factors that shape Saudi policy, Riyadh is unlikely to be insensitive to its overall geopolitical interests. In January 2006, The Acorn wrote that “Saudi Arabia is taking baby steps towards a different relationship with India. Though that may be too gradual for India’s liking, it is nevertheless a welcome development.” So too are the milestones scheduled to be highlighted during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s trip this week. [Related Links: Jyoti Malhotra in Business Standard, article & editorial in Arab News]
Just as the Saudis are better off hedging India and China, it is in India’s interests to balance the powers on either side of the Persian Gulf.
Tailpiece: Back at the conference, I challenged the conventional wisdom that it is India-Pakistan tensions (oversimplified to “Kashmir”) that stand in the way of Afghanistan’s stability. Rather, I argued, it is the US-Iran relationship that forces the United States to rely on a state that has opposing interests (Pakistan) and repulse a state that shares them (Iran). Lubricating a US-Iran rapprochement is in India’s interests.
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