By Kabir Taneja
Over the past week, Argentina hosted the leaders of the G20 group of countries to discuss the financial and economic state of the world. The leaders also held bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the summit. Present among the leaders were Saudi Arabia’s heir apparent, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, known as MBS, who is embroiled in the murder case of well-known journalist and columnist for The Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi was hacked to death inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
The world leaders were in a dilemma on how to deal with the monarch in waiting at the conclave. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and also some other leaders, however, held bilateral consultations with MBS. This meeting invited staunch criticism from many quarters, with activists and media alike calling for the world’s largest democracy to condemn MBS for his alleged role in what is fast becoming a crisis of mammoth proportions for Riyadh.
However, while the criticism of Modi’s engagement perhaps stands justified from a moral standpoint, meeting MBS was not an error in judgment or a bad diplomatic decision. New Delhi has maintained a distance from the Khashoggi affair that has embroiled West Asia, and also added strain on the Washington–Riyadh relations.
This, in West Asia, translates into two approaches for India. First is the idea of strategic autonomy based around the ideals of non-alignment. While non-alignment itself is fast becoming an obsolete project for 21st century India, the balancing act it propagates, originally designed for the Cold War, works in Delhi’s favour in this case. This allows India to have good relations with Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran — the three poles of power in the region. All these countries dislike each other, but consider themselves friends of New Delhi.
The accession of MBS as the monarch of the House of Saud was never going to be easy. Having a reputation of being a “hot head”, he was handpicked, jumping over several hierarchies, by the current ruler King Salman. After becoming heir apparent, he stage-managed an internal family coup last year under the guise of an anti-corruption drive to stamp his authority. Long story short, MBS is set to become the ruler of Saudi Arabia, and India, arguably, for the first time is in a position to deal with Riyadh as a country more important to MBS from a Saudi security perspective than the other way around.
Many of the changes are being channeled by Riyadh’s neighbour, the UAE and Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed (known as MBZ). UAE is currently acting as a laboratory for political and economic change in Saudi Arabia set to be undertaken in a major way under MBS’s reign. With the success of Dubai and Abu Dhabi as models, the Emirates is showcasing the Saudis that economic liberation beyond the petro-dollar is indeed possible while keeping the political structures and powers intact. This is critical to MBS today as Saudi Arabia balances global oil prices between a possible implosion of its domestic economy and an erratic American presidency, whose support is critical for the stability of the House of Saud itself.
A post-oil move in Saudi Arabia automatically means that Asian economies are going to play a big part in such a transformation. Riyadh has already made manoeuvres to court Indian interests in a manner that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. For such a transformation to take place in Saudi Arabia, markets such as China, India, South Korea and Japan, which are also some of the world’s largest importers of oil, will play a critical role, both as continuing buyers of crude and as investors in other sectors such as IT, manufacturing, services, food security and so on.
The mutually beneficial alliance with Saudi Arabia will also significantly increase India’s leverage on how Riyadh views South Asia, specifically against its troublesome neighbour Pakistan. A stable Saudi Arabia is imperative to every section of Indian interests in the region, from economy to demography, and a robust and equivalent economic partnership with the kingdom augers well for both India’s economy and by association, foreign policy. Last year, Saudi Arabia deported more than 40,000 Pakistanis on grounds of security. Now, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi strictly control visas to Pakistani citizens. This is a departure from past practices. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also over the past two years deported several people wanted by New Delhi, including men related with groups such as Pakistan backed Lashkar-e-Taiba, Indian origin sympathizers of the ISIS and so on. This trajectory in the coming future will help Riyadh cut fast increasing domestic costs and offer jobs to a large youth population, which has grown up on a diet of heavily government subsidised lifestyle from free education to free healthcare. This, along with the forceful implementation of the religion, has allowed the kingdom to quell any chance of a popular rebellion against the monarchy.
Such, non-interference allows New Delhi great strategic autonomy. This is not just a selfish act, but plays out positively for multilateral discussions between warring parties as well. Culturally, West Asian states are not fond of others opining on what they see as internal matters, an approach we have seen play out negatively for both the US and European powers in the past. New Delhi’s idea of building a multipolar order offers a good showcase in this geography. For example, we are aware of the fact that India’s position of being on good terms with Iran was used during the P5+1 nuclear negotiations by Western powers to help convince Tehran that the deal was indeed good for everyone involved.
Prime Minister Modi’s meeting with MBS in Buenos Aires was a continuation of Indian foreign policy’s natural trajectory in West Asia with the ethos of strategic autonomy at the core. Over the past three years, a special effort was made for a renewed push between the region and New Delhi for greater economic, cultural, political and, most importantly, security cooperation. Modi’s outreach to Saudi Arabia on the sidelines of the G20 was only part of this due process of national interest.