Book Review| India’s Saudi Policy: Bridge To The Future

 By Revathy K J

What are the factors which prevented India’s robust political engagement with Saudi Arabia post-Independence? What changes in policies and approaches have contributed to strengthened ties now? What are the current challenges that the bilateral relations face? This book has answered these queries in an engaging and detailed manner.

Saudi Arabia – hosting two holiest sites in Islam and the largest oil reserves in the world would be of significant interest to India, whose energy consumption is ever-growing and home to the third-largest Muslim population in the world. India’s Saudi Policy: The bridge to the future have bridged the lack of comprehensive works on the bilateral relations of two potential partners. Albeit of having numerous areas of interest convergences, many factors have prevented these two ancient neighbors from establishing a deeper partnership. The book examines these factors and how significant policy changes have attributed to better ties now in detail. The title seems interesting as it has been termed “India’s Saudi policy” rather than relations. The authors have judiciously chosen this title based on their argument that bilateral relations have been highly influenced and transformed by New Delhi’s approach and policies towards the Kingdom. The book possesses eleven chapters covering all vital social, economic, and political components in the relationship. This timely work is authored by Prof PR Kumaraswamy, a professor of contemporary middle east studies in JNU and the honorary director of Middle East Institute in New Delhi and Dr. Md. Muddassir Quamar, an Associate Fellow in the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

The trajectory of relations and vital influences.

This book presents a comprehensive chronology of India-Saudi relations. Ideological differences, differing world views, and the Pakistani factor acted as the major blockades between India and Saudi since independence. A socialist, anti-colonial, and secular Nehru was in search of similar friends in the Middle East, which led to a closer friendship with Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt. The authors state that India’s Middle East policy during Nehru’s rule was Cairo-centric. The defeat of Nasser in the June war of 1967 replaced his Pan-Arabism with Pan-Islamism, whose primary driver was Riyadh.  Throughout the Nehruvian Era, both sides saw each other as the friend of their immediate rivals. The book affirms that New Delhi’s method of looking at the world through the Pakistani Prism and Al-Saud- Nasser tensions have prevented more political engagements in the initial years after independence. The post-Nehru era saw New Delhi and Riyadh drifting away from each other due to a power imbalance. Saudi’s regional influence expanded during this period due to the emergence of a new regional order and increased prosperity after the 1973 oil boom. The later 1960s also witnessed contradicting world views such as both getting more closer to opposite camps of the cold-war and Riyadh’s support to Pakistan on the 1971 Bangladeshi war. Political engagements were highly limited except Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s visit in 1982, at which King Khalid and Mrs. Gandhi called for closer contacts.

The book then went on to deeply examine several factors that influenced the bilateral relations mainly – Islam, Pakistan, and Palestine. Islam has been a significant tie between the Kingdom and India, even before discovering oil. Haj and Umrah have been vital in ensuring regular people-to-people linkages with nearly 450,000 Indians going to Mecca annually. The authors briefly mention how Saudi’s promotion of its Salafi-Wahhabi Islam has been one source of radicalism in earlier days. Recently, Riyadh and New Delhi had agreed to cooperate to counter extremism by intelligence sharing. The book has initially quoted King Abdullah during his visit to India in 2006, stating Saudi Arabia sees “Pakistan as a brother and India a friend,” clarifying the nature of commitment to both. The authors have given several references to the influence of the Pakistani factor and have dedicated a whole chapter to it. Saudi’s backing to Pakistan on crucial matters such as the Kashmir issue, 1971 Indo-Pak war, a humiliation in Rabat conference, and OIC backing Islamabad had a considerable impact on India’s engagement with Saudi. Palestine became the primary common political interest between Riyadh and New Delhi. The repeated remarks on a “two-state solution” in joint statements between the two also indicate the lack of convergence in any other vital political affairs. Prof. Kumaraswamy, a leading authority on Indo-Israeli relations, has clearly outlined the Palestine factor as one of the major reasons for the long absence of diplomatic relations between New Delhi and Tel Aviv.

 The central argument posed by the book is that India’s decision to dissociate Pakistan from its Middle East Policy coinciding with Saudi’s Look East Policy has been the reason for the betterment of ties after the Cold War.

Transformation in engagements and current challenges

The chapters “The Shift” and “Transformation” project the timeline and nature of ties post-Cold war. Towards the 21st century, the existent power asymmetry has started to balance Riyadh facing global backlash after the 9/11  attacks and India improving its economic capabilities.MEA Jaswant Singh’s visit to the Kingdom in 2001 has been termed as the turning point in the trajectory of bilateral relations. Three high-level political visits followed this in the coming years. The authors describe King Abdullah being the chief guest for the 2006 Republic day celebrations as the  “most crucial moment” in the relations. The King’s visit was marked by the signing of the Delhi declaration by which a comprehensive framework was molded for cooperation, and both nations agreed to work together for people’s welfare. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit in 2010 led to the Riyadh Declaration in which they announced to join hands in strengthening strategic partnerships. Security cooperation is gaining leverage in Indo-Saudi relations, and this can be traced from the 2016 joint statement released on Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the Kingdom with assured cooperation on cybersecurity, counter-terrorism, and many such issues. The authors re-affirm their argument on the advantages of de-linking Pakistan from bilateral engagements by citing the absence of any references to this factor on all joint statements since 2006.

The economic ties in the bilateral relations are detailed under three significant components- Energy, trade, and expatriates. The Kingdom plays a vital role in India’s energy security by being the largest supplier of crude oil since 2006-07. Saudi Arabia has also been India’s fourth-largest trading partner, and there has been a notable rise in trade and investments since Prime Minister’s visit in 2016. The Volume expresses hope in a strengthened strategic partnership per India’s growing energy demands. Saudi Arabia is also home to around 3 Million labor migrants from India, which makes up 10% of residents in the Kingdom. The recent Saudi measures for the nationalization of labor forces and the implementation of Nitaqat have not decreased the flow of migrants from India. Other international players also have a subsequent influence on Indo-Saudi relations, and the book details the role of the US, China, and Iran. Due to the diminishing influence of  Washington in the region, India cannot benefit from the cordial relations with the US as it would have been earlier. China is an emerging player in Riyadh, being its largest trading partner, and there is high compatibility between BRI and Saudi’s Vision 2030. Hence, India would have to be prepared for facing China as a Challenge nearly in its relations to Saudi. The authors cite some significant challenges that the bilateral relations face now, towards the end of the Volume. It includes sectarianism in the middle-East and the reasons why India, with the third largest Shia population in the world, should distance itself from Saudi-Iran tensions. They also call for a more holistic approach in the engagements making use of the Islamic bond, which also serves other advantages to the Kingdom.

This book is the first all-inclusive work on the bilateral relations of India and Saudi Arabia, which highlights its importance for any scholars and students enthusiastic about India’s engagements in the Middle East. Prof Kumaraswamy and Dr. Quamar have presented facts as responses and policy diversions from India’s perspective rather than approaching relations bilaterally. Despite some repetitions on the Pakistan factor in several chapters, the book is highly informative and intriguing. It is also well researched using various primary sources from India and Saudi Arabia. This book would undoubtedly be a rich academic resource for scholars and academicians and an insightful read for students and enthusiasts. The authors end by urging India to explore huge untapped possibilities in bilateral relations and justify their title by stating that the “Choice is primarily India’s!”