India-Saudi Arabia Relationship is no longer cozy

The foreign minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Prince Faisal bin Farhan was on a three-day visit to New Delhi from Sept 19 to 21. His visit was widely hailed by the Indian press as a great success. The media tamely published the handouts given to the Ministry of External Affairs and did not report some unsavory developments that took place during the Saudi Foreign Minister’s visit to India. 

The Indian media brushed aside all the annoying developments and reported with glee that External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and KSA Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan discussed a plethora of issues related to their bilateral relationship, especially regional and international concerns of mutual interest. The two ministers reviewed the implementation of the Strategic Partnership Council Agreement signed during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Saudi Arabia in October 2019. 

However, there were some dark patches that emerged in the otherwise seemingly cordial relationship between India and the kingdom during the visit of the Saudi Foreign Minister to India. 

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The first was the KSA Foreign Minister chose Indian soil to declare that Kashmir is a disputed issue between India and Pakistan. This amounted to committing an act of sacrilege because New Delhi has been quick to respond when such views are aired. 

Remember, hours after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan raked up the Kashmir issue in his address to the UNGA, India’s External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar pounded on him with the statement that he needs to adhere to the relevant UN Security Council resolutions in respect to Cyprus. However, in the wake of the KSA Foreign Minister’s statement, New Delhi has chosen to remain silent and none loathed the KSA foreign minister for his unsavory comments. 

Here it may be apt to mention that the KSA in October 2020 had released a banknote of 20 Riyal that showed Kashmir outside the Indian map. This was protested by India and the KSA quickly announced to withdraw the bank note. However, such an inadvertent error could be seen a part of a definite agenda to give discomfort to India.    

India and Saudi Arabia have been cozying around for some time as their mutually beneficial interests syncing with each other. India is looking for investment to shore up the country’s sagging economy and the Saudis see India as a huge market for its oil export. The economic allurement to both the countries entices each other and outweighs all other considerations.  

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia being the custodian of Islam and the Muslims of the world is turning a blind eye towards atrocities being committed against Muslims in India. While India is loathing the Sharia laws in Afghanistan, it pays no heed to the same laws being implemented in the KSA. 

Similarly, KSA is opposed to the Sufi variety Islam being practiced by the Indian Muslims but prefers to remain silent, and so does India against the Wahabi – Salafi variety of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. The swan song for both the countries is economic consideration whereas the rest is a waste of time.  

However, global politics have started changing after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Every country is busy playing hardball and international politics is no more a zero-sum game. In this realignment, KSA is looking beyond the USA by making forays for a handshake with China. 

This new script in international relations started emerging since the KSA Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman demanded back from Pakistan his country’s $1 billion soft loans. This time Pakistan did not beg mercy but repaid the loan with the help of China. However, this development for the KSA came with strings attached.  

After the repayment of the loan to KSA, China stopped oil import from Saudi Arabia. This direct action of China hit KSA hard and it lost a huge market for its oil exports. The KSA was the largest oil supplier to the communist nation but after this episode, it lost its numéro uno position in the world’s oil export market.   

All this started after Pakistan made an unsuccessful attempt to counter the KSA-controlled Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) by organizing a parallel outfit with help of Turkey and Malaysia, accusing the KSA of abandoning the cause of Kashmir.  

Pakistan’s activity of challenging the KSA supremacy in the Islamic world enraged the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman who in an attempt to arm-twist Pakistan demanded the return of its loan given to Islamabad. After Pakistan returned the loan to KSA with the help of China and Beijing stopped buying oil from the KSA, a realization dawned upon the rulers of the Islamic Kingdom that it can no further antagonize China.   

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Pakistan’s ‘absolutely no’ statement to steer clear of the US policies also alarmed the KSA. According to the media report, Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman had a telephonic conversation with Pakistan PM Imran Khan just before Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan visited India. It cannot be ruled out that the KSA Foreign Minister was in India to send out messages that it is ready to explore new alignment with China. Though not at the cost of the US nor arm-twisting Pakistan.

The changed attitude of the KSA Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan in India sent a clear message that old equations are no more working in Saudi – India relationship.  Now it is also becoming clear why Saudi Arabia delayed its $ 100 billion investments announced in India in 2019. 

In February 2019, during the visit to New Delhi, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had announced that Saudi Arabia would invest over USD 100 billion in India. He also agreed to align the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 with India’s initiatives of ‘Make in India’, ‘Start-Up India’, ‘Smart Cities’, and ‘Digital India’ etc. 

However, Prince Faisal bin Farhan never gave any reasons for the inordinate delay in the Saudi investments that were announced in 2019 during his recent visit to India. His silence has to be seen in the context of KSA’s evolving relationship with the USA, Pakistan, and China. 

Previously, Pakistan was considered to be a titular state of KSA because Islamabad was running its government on the doles given by the KSA. This is not happening anymore. Pakistan is no more America’s or Saudi Arabia’s ‘delivery boy.’ Earlier all the US had to do was to make a phone call to Riyadh that arm-twisted Islamabad and Pakistan fell in line. All these are stories of the past.  After the US exit from Afghanistan, these are the new developments taking place on the global scene. 

This is a time of rejigging among the nations searching for new allies and leaving old ones. It is also a time when nations are rethinking about their dependence on the US which is no longer Mr. Dependable.  This is also a time when the centrality of China is gaining prominence and the axis of new world order is revolving around Beijing.

These are changing times in international relations and testing for India. New Delhi that so far had been under the shelter of either superpower, now is facing heat from ongoing rejig in the international order. It remains to be seen; how New Delhi can tackle such challenges in the times come.    

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba2007@gmail.com

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