On March 8, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Adel al-Jubeir, was in New Delhi to prepare the agenda for an upcoming visit from the Indian prime minister in early April. Narendra Modi will undertake a two-day visit to Saudi Arabia while returning from the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. This will be his second visit to an Arab Gulf country after visiting the UAE in August 2015; it shows the significance the government attaches to the region. This will also be the first high-level visit between the two countries since the February 2010 visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, when the Riyadh Declaration was signed.
The visit comes at a time of extreme disturbances and uncertainties in the Middle East and India’s heightened concerns over growing radicalization, especially through social media. In addition to bilateral trade, investments, and expatriates, security and counter-terrorism are likely to be foremost on the agenda for the prime minister’s visit. This is evident from the press release issued by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) after Jubeir’s meeting with the prime minister, which said: “Both leaders exchanged views on further strengthening bilateral relations, including in the fields of trade, investment, energy, and security cooperation.”
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India and Saudi Arabia share robust bilateral trade relations that have risen steadily since the mid-2000s and particularly thrived during the last five years. In 2010-11, total trade was $25 billion. Trade reached $48 billion in 2013-14 but dropped to $39 billion in 2014-15, thanks to the decline in oil prices. In fact, Saudi Arabia has been one of India’s top five trading partners during the last decade. It is also the largest supplier of crude oil to India. India imports nearly 20 percent of its crude from the kingdom, and 90 percent of Indian imports from Saudi Arabia consist of petroleum. In 2012, Saudi Arabia came to India’s rescue by increasing oil exports to compensate for the deficit caused by sanctions on the Iranian oil industry.
In addition to trade, investments in India’s infrastructure and development projects will be high on the agenda of the bilateral talks. The Bhartiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has been aggressively seeking investments in the Indian market and oil-rich Gulf countries can benefit from the fast growing Indian economy. Media reports suggest that India will seek investments in its infrastructure sector.
Another significant aspect of the bilateral relations is the presence of a large number of Indian workers in the kingdom. At nearly 3 million, Indians in Saudi Arabia make up the largest expatriate community and were acknowledged by Jubeir, who “deeply appreciated the constructive role being played by the Indian community in the development of Saudi Arabia.” In the past, however, issues of Indian workers facing problems and harassment have come up and India is keen to develop better mechanisms to deal with such avoidable situations. It also wishes to have a labor agreement that will include non-domestic workers.
Trade, investments, and expatriate manpower notwithstanding, India and Saudi Arabia are likely to focus on security. The two began to have security cooperation during the Manmohan Singh government, especially during his second term (2009-14), sparked by India’s desire to seek intelligence inputs from countries in the Gulf after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The issue came under discussion during Singh’s visit to Riyadh in 2010, which was followed by Defense Minister A. K. Anthony’s visit in 2012. In February 2014, Saudi Defense Minister (now King) Salman paid a reciprocal visit to India, where a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on defense cooperation was signed.
In June 2012, Saudi Arabia deported Zabiuddin Ansari (Abu Jundal), an accused terrorist wanted for his involvement in the Mumbai attacks. Up till then, Pakistan had been a major component in Saudi strategic calculations vis-à-vis India but despite Ansari carrying a Pakistani passport and Pakistan’s pressure to not deport him, India succeeded in achieving his extradition. This indicated a shift in Indo-Saudi security cooperation. Since then, many suspects, including A. Rayees and Fasih Mohammad, have been deported by Saudi Arabia for their involvement in terror financing or radicalization activities.
Developments since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggest deepening security cooperation. He met Salman on two occasions on the sidelines of G-20 meetings in Brisbane and Antalya. India is keen to enhance ties with Arab countries in the Gulf with a special focus on security, which was one of the highlights of the joint statement issued during Modi’s UAE visit. Reports suggest that India is keen to have a “strong security and counter- terrorism partnership” with Saudi Arabia. India is also seeking Saudi support for its draft Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT), which if received will be a strong message for Pakistan. The significance India associates in pursuing close security ties with Saudi Arabia is also reflected in the appointment of former policemen, Ahmed Javed, as its new ambassador to the kingdom. In all, the emerging contours of Indo-Saudi relations have a strong security dimension.
There are two important aspects driving this. One is the Indian concern to prevent financing or material support to local radical outfits from the Gulf and second is the rise of Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISISL, and its Arabic acronym Da‘esh), which plans to spread its wings to South Asia. The issue of terror financing has lingered for a long time and has received less attention due to its domestic sensitivity. The Indian security establishment, particularly under the current government, is working to create a robust system to prevent this. As a result, a number of those accused or suspected of involvement have been deported from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait in the last couple of years.
Meanwhile, the rise of Islamic State and the impunity with which it has mounted big and small attacks across the globe, including inside Saudi Arabia, has alarmed security agencies the world over. It has ambitions to spread its activities in South Asia and especially target India. In fact, a competition among global Islamist terrorists organization to capture bases in the Indian subcontinent witnessed the launch of al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) in September 2014. Security agencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan have found documents concerning Islamic State’s ambitions to spread jihad in India, and some of the recent attacks on rationalists and secularists in Bangladesh were claimed by the Islamic State. Indian agencies have also apprehended a number of youths who were found to be radicalized online and were ready to join the Islamic State. Even more alarming is the possibility of Islamic State succeeding in forming a base in the troubled Afghanistan-Pakistan border region that can be used to attack Indian territories.
These developments have made necessary for India to seek intelligence and security cooperation with Saudi Arabia, specifically in the cybersecurity area. India has the technology and expertise to trace the origins of online propaganda and radicalization efforts, but if traced to the Gulf they cannot be checked without high-level security and intelligence understandings. For example, if a Twitter handle originating in Saudi Arabia is involved in radicalization efforts among Indian youths, it cannot be handled without involving Saudi security agencies. The kingdom has some experience in counter-terror and de-radicalization efforts and also has reasons for cooperating as it sees India as playing a role in maintaining security and stability in the Gulf.
Md. Muddassir Quamar is a Ph.D. candidate in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi specializing on the Middle East.