In a cabinet reshuffle, a royal decree passed by King Salman and released on 27 September appointed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, popularly known as MbS, as the 8th Prime Minister of the Kingdom.[i] Already considered as the de facto ruler, the move is to only formalize MbS’ appointment as the head of the government. Internal churnings, in that context cannot be denied. Besides the new Prime Minister, the Saudi ministries of strategic significance, namely, the Ministry of Defence, Foreign Affairs and of Interior, also constitute Ministers under the age of 50.[ii] Therefore, the reshuffling marks the beginning of a younger council of ministers with the exception of Minister of Energy, Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud, who is 62-year-old.
Moreover, in the current context when countries are focused on their national interests which compels them to even engage with not-so-friendly nations by employing strategic hedging, a younger, liberal and a comparatively modern outlook bearing Crown Prince with his younger council of ministers, seem to be desirable representatives of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). With a fresh outlook, the cabinet is also likely to achieve the goals aimed for the country’s Vision 2030 which encompasses KSA’s drive for diversification of economy and outreach in other non-conventional aspects. This requires forging multiple alliances, being part of several multilateral and regional forums and in general expanding relations with its partners beyond energy.
Additionally, the UAE’s diplomatic outreach in various forums such as signing of Abraham Accords with Israel, a trilateral with India and Israel, partnership in quadrilateral I2U2, possible trilateral with India and France and its various trade and free trade agreements with countries of strategic significance, has elevated the Emirati position in the wider Middle East. The modern outlook of the country has certainly contributed to it being a desirable business partner to many countries across the world. The UAE’s growing stature and success story may have certainly prompted Saudi Arabia to let go off its internal inhibitions to fulfill its objective of diversification.
If that be the case and given Crown Prince’s bonhomie with India, his assuming the office of the Prime Minister suggests a further warmth in the Indo-Saudi relations.
While most of the regional and Muslim country’s leaders including the Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif congratulated the new prime minister, Indian Prime Minister’s Twitter handle along with the Twitter handles of many western country’s leaders including that of the US did not post a congratulatory message for MbS. In International Relations, optics matter!
Interestingly, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar had visited the Kingdom during 10-12 September, that is around two and a half weeks before the royal decree was passed wherein, he also met the Crown Prince and handed over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hand written message along with the Indian Prime Minister’s invitation to visit India at the earliest.[iii] No such letter was extended to King Salman, the head of the state and the then Prime Minister. As per protocol (From one Prime Minister to another), such an invitation should have been extended to the King who was the then Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia. However, an exclusive invitation to the Crown Prince suggests that the Indian leader was aware of the reshuffling in the cabinet.
To substantiate further, in July last year, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar undertook a similar kind of a visit to Iran where he handed over Prime Minister’s letter to the then President-elect Ebrahim Raisi which bagged him a special invitation to the Iranian President’s oath taking ceremony.[iv] While optics certainly matter, diplomatic shrewdness is much needed to win the competition. This seems like a new trend in Indian foreign policy to be a step ahead of everyone else in congratulating the new leaders on their fresh appointments. It certainly does the trick and ensures India’s closeness to the respective country. In this case, Indian Foreign Minister already met the incoming Prime Minister and discussed areas of mutual interests, much before it was officially announced.
Notwithstanding initial apprehensions and challenges, over the years and specially four years after the signing of strategic partnership agreement, India-Saudi Arabia relations have bolstered in multiple dimensions such as, in politics, security, energy, trade, investment, health, food security, cultural and defence fields. The two countries are partnering in various multilateral forums most important being the G-20 summit which will be hosted under India’s Presidency during 9-10 September 2023.[v]
During his maiden visit to New Delhi in February 2019, the Crown Prince witnessed the Pulwama attack and had extended support to curtail terrorism and extremism. The Pulwama attack incident directed the countries to jointly constitute security dialogue at the level of national security advisors and to set up a joint working group on counter-terrorism.[vi] His ascendance in the political arena of Saudi Arabia has seen many joint military exercises, maritime exploration, tri-service engagements and Saudi support for India’s defence indigenization and manufacturing efforts.[vii]
Additionally, credit also goes to the Crown Prince on Saudi support to India at various instances such as on Kashmir issue especially after the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A. In February 2020, Saudi Arabia not only rejected Pakistan’s plea on discussing Kashmir at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit but also threatened Islamabad of withdrawing massive aid. To contextualize, despite Crown Prince’s rejection, Pakistan had attempted to join a ‘special OIC’ summit in Malaysia along with Turkey.[viii]
Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth largest trading partner, second largest energy supplier and inspite of massive Saudisation[ix] policy, the country still hosts over 30 lakhs Indian expatriates. Fruitful and engaged diplomatic interactions between the two countries will go a long way in solving the issues pertaining to the future of Indian expatriates under the new Saudisation policy. Time is probably ripe for the Government of India to suggest for permanent residency options made available for Indian citizens who form a considerable part of the Saudi support system.[x] In short, Saudi Arabia is an extremely important strategic partner of India and all estimations suggests that this partnership will flourish exponentially under the new Saudi Prime Minister.
[i]Saudi Press Agency (2022), Twitter handle @spagov, available at https://twitter.com/spagov/status/1574809908444368896?s=20&t=_c6qREzG_9IcwOoK6c7PJA, accessed on 29 September 2022.
[ii] Saudi Prime Minister, Crown Prince Salman is 37 Years old; Minister of Defence, Khalid bin Salman Al Saud (34 years old); Minister of Foreign Affairs, Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud (47 years old); Minister of Interior, Abdulaziz bin Saud Al Saud (38 years old).
[iii] MEA (2022), “Visit of External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (September 10-12, 2022)”, 9 September, available at https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/35690/Visit+of+External+Affairs+Minister+Dr+S+Jaishankar+to+the+Kingdom+of+Saudi+Arabia+September+1012+2022, accessed on 29 September 2022.
[iv]The Hindu (2021), “Jaishankar meets Iranian President-elect”, 8 July, available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/jaishankar-meets-iranian-president-elect/article35204258.ece, accessed on 29 September 2022.
[v] MEA (2022), “India’s Forthcoming G20 Presidency”, 13 September, available at https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/35700/Indias_forthcoming_G20_Presidency#:~:text=Under%20its%20Presidency%2C%20India%20is,September%202023%20in%20New%20Delhi., accessed on 29 September 2022.
[vi] Manjari Singh (2020), “India-Persian Gulf Relations: From Transactional to Strategic Partnership”, CLAWS Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 157-173.
[vii] Manjari Singh (2021), “Navigating Indian Defense Outreach with the Gulf”, Fikra Forum, Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), 7 April, available at https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/navigating-indian-defense-outreach-gulf, accessed on 29 September 2022.
[viii] The Hindu (2020), “Saudi Arabia rejects Pakistan’s plea for discussion on Kashmir in OIC”, 7 February, available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/saudi-arabia-rejects-pakistans-plea-for-discussion-on-kashmir-at-oic/article30758862.ece, accessed on 29 September 2022.
[ix] Refers to rapid indigenisation policy in various sectors of economy to accommodate Saudi citizens in the job market and thereby to address the growing challenge of unemployment. As of March 2022, 30 more professions were added to the list confirming Saudi employment in those sectors. Most of these sectors is where the Indian expatriates are employed into. For more details, see: Biju Govind (2022), “Saudisation policy will leave thousands of Indian expats jobless”, The Hindu, 29 March, available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/saudisation-policy-may-leave-thousands-of-indian-expats-jobless/article65270874.ece, accessed on 29 September 2022.
[x] Manjari Singh (2021), “Navigating Indian Defense Outreach with the Gulf”, Fikra Forum, Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), 7 April, available at https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/navigating-indian-defense-outreach-gulf, accessed on 29 September 2022.