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Friday, July 27, 2012

India forging ties with Saudis on anti-terrorism


By HARSH V. PANT
Special to The Japan Times

LONDON — Despite recent initiatives by India and Pakistan to revive ties that were ruptured after the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008, there has been little substantive movement on the ground.

The main stumbling block, as ever, remains the inability of the two states to agree on who was responsible for plotting the deadly attacks on Mumbai in 2008, which killed 166 people.

The recent capture of a key suspect in the attacks, Sayed Zabiuddin, also known as Abu Jundal, and the confirmation from his interrogation that he was in the control room in Pakistan with Inter-Services Intelligence officials when the Mumbai attacks were under way has put Pakistan in the dock.

Though Pakistan continues to stonewall India, the reality is that it is becoming increasingly isolated, as even its closest ally, Saudi Arabia, has been working with India on terrorism-related issues. This is the larger story behind recent developments in South Asia. It signals a sea change in Saudi Arabia's priorities.

For several years, India has looked to Saudi authorities for help on terrorism-related issues. But Riyadh had been reluctant to jettison Pakistan for India.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a broader change in Saudi policy and this is now reflected in Saudi Arabia helping India in the extradition of Jundal. As India has moved away from Iran, it has moved closer to Saudi Arabia with the help of the U.S.

In January 2006, Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud visited India (and China) on his first trip outside the Middle East since taking the throne in August 2005. This trip was widely viewed as extremely significant as it underscored a strategic shift in Saudi foreign policy and was reflective of "a new era" for the kingdom.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reciprocated by visiting Riyadh in 2010, 28 years since the last Indian premier visited the Saudi kingdom, and promptly elevated the Indo-Saudi relationship to a "strategic partnership." With his visit to Saudi Arabia, the prime minister re-emphasized that, when it comes to the Persian Gulf, Iran will not be the focus of Indian foreign policy.

Riyadh is the chief supplier of oil to India's booming economy, and India is now the fourth largest recipient of Saudi oil after China, the United States and Japan.

India's crude oil imports from the Saudi kingdom will likely double in the next 20 years. During his visit to India, the Saudi king emphasized his country's commitment to uninterrupted supplies to India regardless of global price trends. New Delhi is also cultivating Riyadh for strategic reasons. To Indian strategists, any ally that acts as a counterweight to Pakistan in the Islamic world is important.

Initially, New Delhi sought to cultivate Tehran, but such efforts have stumbled in recent years as the Islamic Republic has adopted an increasingly aggressive anti-Western posture. India hopes Saudi Arabia might fill that gap. Indeed, Iranian nuclear ambitions have helped to draw New Delhi and Riyadh closer together. Riyadh agreed to double its oil exports to India, helping New Delhi reduce its reliance on Iran.

The Saudi government has its own reasons for cultivating Indian ties. Saudi Arabia and Iran have long competed for power and influence in the Gulf. As the regional balance of power between Arabia and Persia threatens to unravel in Iran's favor, New Delhi has repeatedly emphasized its desire to see the balance of power in the region stabilize. Given India's growing stakes in the Gulf, it is not surprising that this should be the case.

The Saudi king's 2006 visit to India was also a signal to the broader Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) community to build a stronger partnership with India. In an attempt to have a structured exchange on bilateral and collective security issues, the annual Indian-GCC dialogue, formerly held on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly, is now being held in a GCC country or in New Delhi.

The security consequences of a rising Iran are as significant for other Arab Gulf states as they are for Saudi Arabia. Tehran's nuclear drive, its interference in neighboring Iraq, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's aggressive rhetoric are raising anxieties in Arab states about a resurgent Iran, forcing them to reorient their diplomacy accordingly.

Reaching out to emerging powers such as India is one way to preserve the balance of power in the region.

In the past, it was quite common for Indian terrorists living in Pakistan to travel to Saudi Arabia with new names and Pakistani passports. This was also done by Abu Jundal, who went to Saudi Arabia with a Pakistani passport to raise funds and recruit men for future attacks in India.

With his deportation, Riyadh has signaled that this won't be allowed to happen any longer. This is good news for the global fight against terrorism and India's struggle against Pakistani military and intelligence services.

India should now build on its ties with Riyadh and try to isolate Islamabad further. This is the only way to put pressure on Pakistan as it has so far failed to respond to demands from India and the world at large to try to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attacks to book.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King's College London.


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