Gurgaon, Haryana, India
Feb 21, 2019, 12.25 PM
The Saudi Crown Prince’s visit to India has received mix reactions that not only expose lack of consensus about Indian Foreign Policy but also alert us about the urgent need to remove prevailing ambiguity in prioritising our strategic partnerships.
Unfortunately, the crown prince’s visit came soon after the shocking terror arrack on CRPF men in Pulwama when the nation was mourning the martyrs and was under a pall of gloom. Outrage against Pakistan was high as Jaish e Mohammed had accepted responsibility for this barbaric act. This terrorist organisation operates from sanctuaries in Pakistan and its leaders are protected protégés of Pakistani armed forces and its notorious intelligence agency ISI. Saudi Arabia has a long and intimate relationship with Pakistan and it is understandable that the warm welcome extended to the royal guest breaching poetical didn’t go down well with the majority of Indians cutting across party lines.
But the timing of the tour wasn’t the only thing that raised eyebrows. Mohammed Bin Salman has in his itinerary sandwiched India between Pakistan and China. South Block went into overdrive to emphasise that in 21st-century 'enemy’s friend can be our friend’ also. It was argued that we should forge ties with other countries entirely on the basis of our national interest and get rid of the deadwood of ideology.
The problem is that the Saudi Crown Prince has been a controversial figure ever since his succession was signalled. In the beginning, high hopes were aroused that he will usher in an era of long-awaited modernisation leading hopefully sooner rather than later to a whiff of democracy. The detention on charges of corruption of high ranking members of the ruling elite and allowing women to drive reinforced these expectations. But then the brutal murder of Khashoggi, a US journalist of Saudi descent, upset the proverbial apple cart. The assassination may well have been undertaken by rogue elements in Saudi armed forces or intelligence services but the stink hast quite cleared that they perpetrated the crime to please their new master.
Once we accept the logic of realpolitik all this pales into insignificance. So, let us limit ourselves here to an assessment of what we have gained and are likely to gain in foreseeable future from this visit. At the same time, it is imperative to take into account the costs the agreements signed may entail.
We have been informed that Saudi Arabia has promised to invest $100 billion in India in oil refining, infrastructure, tourism, broadcasting and education. India has also been assured that its quota of Haj pilgrims will be doubled to 200,000 per year. Exchange of intelligence will continue and the pro formation condemnation of terrorism is also there without any specifics.
A more than small hiccup here is that one doesn’t know when the 45 billion dollar investment in Oil Refinery will fructify. Earlier, the proposed site was at Ratnagiri but due to strong farmer’s protest, the Maharashtra government has been constrained to announce its shifting. Land acquisition is likely to create obstacles.
Contrast this with what the Pakistan is getting immediately $10 billion out of which $3 billion to bail it out from defaulting on repayment of loans, $3 billion against deferred payments for oil imports and approximately, another $3billion for development of Gwadar port that is described as the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ on China’s One Belt One Road project. It is impossible to overlook that Gwadar is being developed to render impotent the potential of Chabahar in Iran to which India has already committed vast resources and considers extremely important to extend its strategic reach in Afghanistan and beyond in West Asia.
It is true that with the fall in oil prices globally and the US striving to explore shale oil had made Saudi Arab anxious and apprehensive about the future. The Crown Prince has indeed been exploring other options and looking for a new strategic alliance. However, it would be naive to conclude that suddenly India has begun to loom large on Saudi’s mental horizon.
It is impossible not to get alienated from Iran as we get embroiled into a tight embrace with Saudis. The US would like us to be more cordial with their long term allies when they tighten the screws on Iran. It would also like us to follow their lead in Afghanistan. What we must ask is that does this really serves our national interest?
Pakistan does need the Saudi crutches to survive but India is certainly not in such an abject and pitiable situation. We should remain alert that we don’t dissipate our energies chasing a mirage in the distant desert. True, we import 20 per cent of our oil from Saudi Arab and hundreds of thousands of Indians work in that country. This does not mean that we should change course suddenly or drastically dreaming of an Oasis that remains a long and hard way off.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)