By Kamran Bokhari
Summary The Middle East and South Asia are, in many ways, organically linked to one another. The most significant dynamic linking the two regions involves the quadrangular relationship between Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and India. Traditionally, the Saudis and the Pakistanis have been allies while the interests of the Indians and the Iranians have tended to converge. More recently, the sectarian conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the rivalry between India and Pakistan have intersected in complex ways, disrupting these historical alignments.
On April 3, Saudi Arabia conferred its highest civilian award on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the latter’s two-day visit to the kingdom. The King Abdulaziz Sash, as it is called, is named after the founder of the modern kingdom. The Saudis have bestowed it upon a number of world leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Given the close ties the Saudis have with the Americans, Russians and Brits, it makes sense for the Saudis to engage in such diplomatic honors with them. However, the same cannot be said of Saudi-Indian relations. In fact, it is more than a bit odd for this kind of close relationship to emerge between the two countries.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy whose official ideology is the ultraconservative Salafist sect of Islam. It is this same ideology that has spawned transnational jihadism, which has inspired different groups to attack India over the years. Saudi Arabia is also a close ally of India’s archrival, Pakistan.
In contrast, India is a secular democracy. In recent years, however, the South Asian giant has seen the rise of right-wing Hindu nationalism under the leadership of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has encouraged anti-Muslim sentiment. The Indian prime minister has been a controversial figure in this regard, given his alleged involvement in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat while he was chief minister of Gujarat.
Although Saudi Arabia supplies 19 percent of the oil that India imports, that has long been the case. The Saudis never went to the extent of honoring any previous Indian leader. So, why do this now and especially with Modi? The answer has to do with two dynamics radiating out of the Middle East and impacting South Asia. These are the jihadist threat from the Islamic State and, more important, the intensifying sectarian struggle between the Saudis and the Iranians.
The Pakistani Connection
Pakistan is deeply worried about the escalation of tensions between its historic ally Saudi Arabia and Iran, with whom it shares a considerable border. Over the last 30 years, Pakistan has experienced a tremendous amount of Sunni-Shia sectarian violence – a good deal of which was the result of the proxy battle between the Saudis and the Iranians. In addition, the Pakistanis have suffered immensely because of Saudi financial aid to Islamist forces in their country, especially in the post-9/11 era, during which a jihadist insurgency has left at least 50,000 people dead and caused tens of billions of dollars in economic losses. Therefore, Pakistan, under the current government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (who has been closer to the Saudi royals than any other Pakistani leader in recent history), decided to put itself in a position roughly equidistant from Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The Pakistani move also made economic sense given the potential for energy deals with Iran in the wake of the nuclear agreement. Tehran can help Islamabad deal with a chronic natural gas shortage – a project to help solve this problem was held up because of the sanctions regime and the associated American pressure on the Pakistanis. Pakistan also wants to counter the traditional Iranian-Indian alignment, especially as it applies to Afghanistan, since Islamabad knows it cannot manage its western neighbor without an understanding with Iran. The Pakistanis also do not want to see India get too heavily involved in developing the port of Chabahar, which offers a potential route to the Persian Gulf to an otherwise landlocked Afghanistan, which currently depends on Pakistan for access to the high seas. Chabahar is also only 70 miles from Pakistan’s new Gwadar Port, which is being developed by the Chinese as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
In other words, there are many issues pushing the Pakistanis to establish closer ties with the Iranians. It was only last week that Iran’s president paid a visit to Pakistan. The Saudis have been watching this very closely and they do not like what they see. All of this also comes at a tense moment in relations between Riyadh and Islamabad. This began about a year ago when the Pakistanis refused to provide forces for Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen.
In October, the Pakistanis gave a lukewarm response to the Saudi move to form the Islamic Military Alliance – a coalition of largely Arab countries. It is being touted as a force to fight jihadists, but it is more about countering Iran on its path towards international rehabilitation while the Arab world is increasingly in turmoil. It is one thing for the Pakistanis to not come running to the aid of the Saudis. It’s an altogether different thing that Saudi Arabia’s key Muslim ally is improving ties with its biggest enemy. What makes this situation even worse is that the Pakistani shift is taking place around the same time that the kingdom’s biggest ally, the United States, has been trying to build relations with the Iranians.
Turning to India
While there is not much that the Saudis can do to counter American moves, the kingdom can try to shape Pakistan’s behavior. It should be noted that the Saudis have for a few years now been developing relations with India as leverage in their dealings with Pakistan. While Islamabad and New Delhi have been trying to improve ties since Modi came to office, several factors have actually aggravated matters. These include the overall hawkish nature of the Modi government, attacks from Pakistan-based jihadist entities (most notably the Jan. 2 attack by Jaish-e-Mohammed on the airbase in the Indian border town of Pathankot) and the recent arrest by the Pakistanis of an alleged Indian spy.
These tensions provide the Saudis with an opportunity to force the Pakistanis to, at the very least, limit ties Iran and, to the extent possible, revise their position on military assistance to the kingdom. By getting closer to India, the Saudis hope to block Iran from benefiting from its historic relations with the Indians. For years, when Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were close, it made sense for both India and Iran to cultivate close ties with one another. A key arena in which Iran and India saw eye to eye was Afghanistan, especially during the Taliban rule.
From India’s point of view, closer ties with the Saudi kingdom offer several dividends. Being conferred the King Abdulaziz Sash allows Modi to show both on the home front and internationally that he is not the anti-Muslim hawk that he is portrayed as. More important, India may be able to gain Riyadh’s help in countering both Pakistan and Pakistan-based groups like Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD), which is the biggest anti-India militant force and a Salafist organization with close ties to the Saudis.
To get a sense of just how close JuD is to the Saudis, it should be noted its founder, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, called on Pakistan to support Saudi Arabia in Yemen. JuD is also virulently anti-India, has been opposed to Pakistan improving ties with Iran and benefits from tensions between Pakistan and India. Therefore, the fact that its patron, Saudi Arabia, has drawn closer to India and particularly the Modi administration creates a huge problem for JuD, as well as other extremist forces in Pakistan.
The Saudis actually risk creating additional problems for themselves by developing closer ties with the Modi government. Jihadist groups in general, including Islamic State and al-Qaida, as well as anti-India Pakistani militants and many within the kingdom’s religious establishment, will use this against the royal family. The Saudis will want to make sure that they can get Modi to avoid any further anti-Muslim moves by the Indian prime minister’s allies. But Modi cannot guarantee this and thus the strategy could backfire on the Saudis. That said, tighter relations with the Indians will help the Saudis convince Pakistan to decelerate efforts to establish close ties with Iran. It is unlikely though that the Pakistanis will be forced to openly side with the Saudis against the Iranians.
In the end, the twin processes of Pakistan improving ties with Iran and the Saudis getting closer to India have set into motion a slow shift in key cross-regional relations between the Middle East and South Asia.