The Bigger Picture
ON JANUARY 26, 2006, the Republic Day celebrations will feature an intriguing guest - King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia. This will be the first visit of the monarch -- also known these days as the `Custodian of the Holy Places [of Islam]' -- to India since 1955. The decision of the Saudi king, who also happens to be the prime minister, meaning he is head of State and government, to visit India and be chief guest on Republic Day is by no means a routine matter. Saudi Arabia is not just the country where Mecca and Medina are located, and hence exerts an enormous emotional pull for Indian Muslims, but is also the largest exporter of oil to India, as well as host to 1.4 million Indians, the largest expatriate population in the kingdom.
The visit 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 the Asean and Saarc. 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 Organisation.
In great measure, contemporary global issues were catalysed by the 9/11 attack that administered a shock therapy of sorts to the world, and more particularly Saudi Arabia which had, in the past, quietly looked away from the rising tide of fundamentalism and adopted a strategy that sought to export this phenomenon to other countries. In his incisive Ghost Wars, Steve Coll has detailed the manner in which Saudi intelligence worked the great jehad against the Soviet Union in the early Eighties and Afghan politics thereafter. However, 9/11, perpetrated mainly by Saudi nationals, brought home to the government the extent to which its own society had been undermined in the process. Several terrorist incidents since, aimed at Saudi infrastructure and foreign nationals working there, have driven this message home.
As the world oil supplies dwindle, and our dependence on oil import grows, the Saudi peninsula emerges as one of the most important regions in the world for India's wellbeing and security. Most of Indian oil is imported from the region and 2.5 million Indians work in other Gulf nations. Traditional Indian policy in the region concentrated on Iran and Iraq, never mind the era of Nasser, Tito and `original' non-alignment. But Iraq today is a split reed, brutalised by a needless war launched by the US.
The fillip the visit will inevitably give to the Saudi-India relationship has implications for India's relationship with Iran. Iran's excessively ideological preoccupations and aggressive anti-Western attitudes are coming in the way of closer ties, and so New Delhi has sought to move beyond the Persian Gulf to the Saudi peninsula. It will be an antidote of sorts to the fireeaters in Teheran who wanted to punish India for the vote in the IAEA, as well as be a means of spreading out India's risks in a vital but potentially unstable region. In other words, those who think that Iran can hold India hostage because of its oil riches will have to contend with the obvious implications of closer Saudi-Indian ties.
Ties with Gulf countries like Oman have always been good, and in recent years the United Arab Emirates, too, has sought closer ties with New Delhi. Now better relations with Saudi Arabia will help India to work out an even balance in its relationships in West Asia as a whole since in the Nineties, India made the tough decision to re-establish full relations with Israel. This sent a message to the erstwhile nonaligned world, who had for long taken India's stand on a variety of issues for granted. In a sense, the Saudi king's visit is a manifestation of that success, because of the country's enormous moral and political importance in the Arab world. That influence cannot be underestimated, as was seen in 1989 when King Fahd visited Egypt, an event that marked the return of Egypt to the Arab fold after a period of isolation following Anwar Sadat's decision to make peace with Israel.
As India aggregates economic power and develops its military capacities, there remains a dangerous lag in its ability to openly articulate its changing strategic needs. In great measure, this is a product of its fractured polity, but also of the very natural human tendency to cling on to the verities of the past, instead of acknowledging the realities that confront us. Among these is the truth that the future will be shaped by economic interdependence and mutual interaction. Of all the regions, the Saudi peninsula and the Gulf littorals are vital for Indian economic growth not just as a source of ener gy, but as markets for Indian products and to provide jobs for Indian skills. But to reach that point we need to fight and win a battle of ideas with forces of Islamic radicalism in our neighbourhood and Leftist adventurism at home.
In the battle for ideas, Saudi Arabia occupies an important place for India because it is the place where the holiest shrines of Islam are located and whose control is the sworn aim of al-Qaeda and its many clones. While the kind of radicalism that has torn countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan is not visible in India, it is not for want of trying. Recent incidents of terrorism, involving some Indian Muslims, are a disturbing sign that the missionary effort of groups like the Lashkar-eTayyeba may be working.
Countries like India have so far been peripheral for the Saudis because they were poor and had little to give in exchange. But in the war of ideas that the Saudis are now locked in with Osama and his acolytes, the ability of the all but a handful of 140 million Indian Muslims to live and flourish in a country with people of other faiths is an important fact that can aid in the defeat of radical Islamism.
For India, Saudi Arabia's decision to take on the Islamic radicals who foment terror is an important one. Groups like the Lashkar-eTayyeba derive their inspiration and monetary support from Saudi Arabia. The man who helped found the Lashkar is Sheikh Abdul Aziz, reportedly a resident of Saudi Arabia. Even now there are reports that money for a variety of terrorist activities in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh originates in that country, from rich but ignorant Sheikhs. Saudi Arabia is now trying to expiate its past by setting up an international anti-terrorism centre in Riyadh.
In such a framework, India occupies a unique role. Its crucial dependence on oil makes not just relations with Saudi Arabia important, but for peace and stability across the West Asian region. This cannot be achieved by India alone, but in cooperation with like-minded countries. India's emerging military capabilities can contribute to the process, as indeed its growing diplomatic and economic clout.
published in The Hindustan Times, November 16, 2005