Indian prime minister Narendra Modi is due to arrive in Saudi Arabia on Saturday. The relationship between the two countries has grown significantly over the past two decades based on their burgeoning energy ties and the 2.8 million strong Indian diaspora in the kingdom.
The deportation to India in 2012 of Sayed Zabiuddin, also known as Abu Jundal, a key suspect in the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, also signalled a change in Saudi Arabia’s counterterror priorities and its relationship with Pakistan .
Since September 11, 2001, there has been a broader, though limited, change in Saudi policy. This was reflected in Saudi Arabia helping India in the extradition of Jundal. In the past, it was quite common for Indian terror suspects living in Pakistan to travel to Saudi Arabia with new names and Pakistani passports. This was the path taken by Abu Jundal, who went to Saudi Arabia to try to raise funds and recruit men for future attacks in India. With his deportation, Riyadh signalled an end to this.
Ahead of Mr Modi’s visit, Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir has insisted that Saudi Arabia’s “relations with Pakistan do not come at the expense of relations with India”. Mr Al Jubeir and the Deputy Crown Prince and defence minister, Mohammad bin Salman, have visited Pakistan in recent months, although there is concern about Islamabad’s refusal to commit troops to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Mr Modi’s visit comes eight months after his trip to the UAE, which resulted in a statement denouncing terrorism in “all forms and manifestations, wherever committed and by whomever, calling on all states to reject and abandon the use of terrorism against other countries, dismantle terrorism infrastructures where they exist, and bring perpetrators of terrorism to justice”. He would like to secure a similar statement from his trip to Saudi Arabia.
In January 2006, the then Saudi King, Abdullah visited India (along with China) on his first trip outside the Middle East since he assumed the throne in August 2005. This trip was widely viewed as extremely significant as it underscored a strategic shift in Saudi foreign policy and was reflective of “a new era” for the kingdom.
The then Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, reciprocated by visiting Riyadh in 2010 – the first such visit in 28 years – and promptly elevated the Indo-Saudi relationship to a “strategic partnership.”
Riyadh is the chief supplier of oil to India’s booming economy, and India is now the fourth largest recipient of Saudi oil after China, the United States and Japan. India’s crude oil imports from the kingdom are likely to double in the next 20 years. During his visit to India, King Abdullah emphasised his country’s commitment to uninterrupted supplies to a friendly country such as India regardless of global price trends.
New Delhi is also cultivating Riyadh for strategic reasons. To Indian strategists, any ally that can act as a counterweight to Pakistan in the Islamic world is significant. Initially, New Delhi sought to cultivate Tehran, but such efforts stumbled as the Islamic Republic adopted an increasingly aggressive anti-western posture.
Indeed, Iran’s nuclear ambitions helped draw New Delhi and Riyadh closer. Riyadh agreed to double its oil exports to India, helping New Delhi reduce its reliance on Iran.
The Saudi government has its own reasons for cultivating Indian ties. As the regional balance of power threatens to unravel in Iran’s favour, New Delhi has repeatedly emphasised its desire to see the extant balance of power in the region stabilise. Given India’s growing stakes in the Gulf, it is not surprising that this should be the case.
The Saudi king’s 2006 visit to India also led to greater partnerships with India among other Gulf Cooperation Council countries. In an attempt to have a structured exchange on bilateral and collective security issues, the Indian-GCC dialogue previously held annually on the margins of the UN General Assembly is now being held in a GCC country, or in New Delhi, as a dedicated forum.
The security consequences of a rising Iran are as significant for other Gulf states as they are for Saudi Arabia. The US-Iran rapprochement is raising anxiety about a resurgent Iran, leading to a reorientation in diplomacy.
A strong India-Saudi relationship is important for the global fight against terrorism and India’s relationship with Pakistan. Mr Modi hopes that by strengthening ties with Riyadh, it will put some pressure on Islamabad and its perceived support for extremism.
Harsh V Pant is a reader in international studies at King’s College, London