Indian Decade

New Friends?

Is the visit this week by Manmohan Singh to Saudi Arabia a sign of a budding friendship?

This week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh concluded a state visit to Saudi Arabia. Four years ago, King Abdullah had been the chief guest at India’s annual Republic Day celebrations. The seeming bonhomie between these two states is nothing short of curious.

Historically, Saudia Arabia—a deeply conservative Sunni-dominated monarchy where clerics wield much influence on everyday life—should have little or nothing in common with a constitutionally secular, democratic republic like India. More to the point, it is well known that the Saudis on more than one occasion have been quite sympathetically inclined toward India’s long-standing adversary, Pakistan.

Yet, perhaps because of these very differences of both ideology and interest Singh feels it necessary to court the secretive, monarchical state. Without a working relationship with Saudi Arabia, India can’t hope to protect its interests in Afghanistan and work toward restraining Pakistan’s continuing support for a range of scrofulous jihadi elements. In recent years, after having dallied with jihadis of various stripes, the Saudis are now becoming more circumspect in their dealings with such individuals and organizations. The monarchy seems to be realizing that uneasy lays a head that wears a crown, and especially when the very subjects and acolytes that they had encouraged to take up the jihad may now be coming home to roost.

Singh is obviously capitalizing on these concerns and offering to work with the Saudis to rein in the jihadis both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This diplomatic strategy requires India to overcome its reservations about the many unpleasant domestic features of the Saudi state and focus more on a possible convergence of interests. Neither India nor Saudi Arabia stand to benefit from jihadis running amok in their adjacent neighborhoods. Consequently, it may be possible for two states with markedly different ideological orientations and domestic politics to find common ground.

A deeply thoughtful, determined and imaginative prime minister may have yet broken new diplomatic ground after his deft and unyielding pursuit of the US-India nuclear deal in 2008. It will bear watching to see how this nascent relationship between India and Saudi Arabia unfolds.