A harbinger of the growing closeness between New Delhi and Riyadh is the number of high-level visits by political leaders from both countries in recent years. For the second time, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is travelling to Saudi Arabia to attend the Future Investment Summit to be held in Riyadh on October 29-31. The frequency of such visits clearly manifests the strategic importance accorded by both countries to one another. It is expected, during Modi’s visit, that both sides will sign energy deals, including the promise of Saudi participation in India’s strategic petroleum reserve. Further, details about the planned Indo-Saudi Strategic Partnership Council are likely to be discussed.
Today’s Indo-Saudi cooperation is no longer restricted to the traditional sphere of oil-energy trade. Instead, the relationship has become multifaceted thanks to the impetus given by the leaderships of both countries to other areas, including defense, maritime security, counterterrorism, science and technology, strategic oil reserves, investments, tourism, and so on. This bonhomie has come about at a time when mega economic reform programs are underway in Saudi Arabia, for which it welcomes India’s economic as well as technological assistance. Likewise, New Delhi looks for Saudi investments in India’s petrochemicals, infrastructure, and mining sectors alongside cooperation in economic and security matters.
That transformation was brought about by strong political will in both India and Saudi Arabia to take relations to new heights. The current scenario is unlike the Cold War period when India-Saudi Arabia ties were mainly determined by the Pakistani factor. For decades, this prevented both New Delhi and Riyadh from discovering the strategic importance of engaging one another. But, over a period, they have begun to disentangle themselves from certain inhibitions of the past. Lately, there have been indications that Saudi Arabia is less interested in meddling in India’s internal affairs. This could be a reason why the Saudi government, during National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s visit to Riyadh early October this year, reportedly conveyed that it understood India’s “approach” and “actions” regarding the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. This neutral stance taken by Saudi Arabia is telling for India, particularly considering Pakistan’s concerted attempts to internationalize the issue.
Alongside the growing politico-economic ties, cooperation in the security realm is significantly progressing. Doval’s visit could be viewed as another step taken to intensify security engagements as both sides remain concerned by the ongoing security situation in their respective regions. While India continues to face cross-border terrorism (including seaborne threats), Saudi Arabia remains vulnerable to frequent missile and drone attacks on its civilian dwellings as well as on its major oil fields, including the strike on Aramco’s oil processing plant, Abqaiq, and the Khurais oilfield on September 14 this year.
In view of the above, the agreement reached during the visit of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to India in February to constitute a “Comprehensive Security Dialogue” at the national security adviser (NSA) level and set up a Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism was timely. Both countries face multidimensional security threats, not only on land, air, and sea, but also in cyberspace. The regular conduct of NSA-level security dialogues could enable both sides to explore new areas of cooperation alongside reinforcing the already thriving bilateral engagements. Saudi Arabia, despite being one of the military powers in the Middle East and spending billions of dollars annually on arms purchases, appears to have limited experience in countering threats from groups like Houthi militias, who have mastered guerrilla warfare tactics for several years. This is an area where India’s expertise in fighting such threats could be imparted to the Saudi side, by enhancing joint military training programs and exercises as agreed in the MoU signed in February 2014. Simultaneously, as Saudi Arabia has interests to play a role in the Indian Ocean region, uplifting cooperation in the maritime security domain from the current status would be in the interest of both countries. Going a step further in this domain, navies of both countries will hold their first joint naval exercises either toward the end of 2019 or at the beginning of next year. This is a significant move, which is important from the prism of maritime security cooperation as well as to safeguard international trade via sea routes.
Meanwhile, space is an important domain where bilateral engagements could be strengthened. The burgeoning space-related programs currently pursued by countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE coincide with India’s upward trajectory in this sector, raising the prospect for further cooperation. India could explore the possibility to engage with the newly established Saudi Space Agency, which is expected to become the focal point for all programs related to Saudi’s international space cooperation. Until now, much of the kingdom’s space and satellite activities have emanated from the King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology (KACST), which is responsible for “satellite manufacturing and research and development, as well as for implementing and managing space science and exploration research and missions.” Indo-Saudi cooperation in space, for now, lacks progress since the signing of an MoU between the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and KACST in February 2010. Such a lacklustre picture contrasts with the overall bilateral ties growing by leaps and bounds. However, as the kingdom is focusing on developing its potential in the field of space technology, it could turn for assistance toward countries with advanced experience in space science, including India. Remote sensing, satellite communication, and satellite-based navigation are some of the areas where both countries could jointly work and mutually benefit.
Suffice to say, India and Saudi Arabia are gradually scaling new heights by wielding their foreign policies with craftsmanship. Realpolitik and the strategic interests of both sides have been instrumental in bringing the ties closer than ever before. Both governments have become cognizant of the fact that they have more to gain by solely focusing on their national interests, rather than letting their bilateral ties be dictated by a third party. As the momentum has been set, it is up to the respective leaders to fructify their talks, the agreements, and most importantly, the optics.
Dr. Alvite Ningthoujam is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Middle East Institute, New Delhi. The views expressed here are personal.