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Modi in Saudi Arabia: What to expect, why this hype and what about Iran?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit is important, but to say that it will bring a sea change in bilateral ties is to underestimate the complex geopolitical reality in West Asia — more so, it’s an overestimation of India’s influence in the region

analysis Updated: Apr 01, 2016 15:42 IST
Viju Cherian
Narendra Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives for a working dinner with heads of delegations for the Nuclear Security Summit, White House, Washington, March 31, 2016(REUTERS)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in Saudi Arabia this weekend, on his way back from Washington after the nuclear summit. Every foreign visit by the PM is significant, and so is this visit to Saudi Arabia. But it is premature to read too much into its geopolitical benefits — at least not until we see concrete deliverables.

Modi’s Riyadh visit raises expectations and throws up many questions: Why is this visit important and what can we expect from it? Can the bilateral ties truly move ahead without Pakistan becoming a third wheel? And, most crucially, is India overlooking its ties with Iran?

First, why the visit matters. Simply put, stronger ties are mutually beneficial for both nations.

Read | Modi a major ally in war against terror: EU lawmakers

For India, good ties are imperative because Saudi Arabia is our largest supplier of oil and the fourth largest trading partner. The population of Indian expats in the Kingdom is estimated to be around 2.96 million — the largest chunk of our diaspora in West Asia. The Saudi king is the custodian of the two holy mosques and this matters a great deal to India’s 170 million Muslims, the country’s largest religious minority.

For Saudi Arabia, India’s growing economy and ever-increasing appetite for oil cannot be ignored, especially at a time when fuel prices are low, and are expected to remain so in the near future.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (left) with US President Barack Obama, in the Oval Office, White House,Washington, September 4, 2015 (REUTERS)

Also the developments over the past few years have not gone in Riyadh’s favour — between 2014 and 2015 the United States cut crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia by half. With the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran nuclear deal coming into effect the US has achieved a working equation with Iran, and for most part of its fight against the Islamic State (IS), Washington has relied on Tehran and not Riyadh. All this has meant that Saudi Arabia, which until recently was the region’s big boy, now feels that it is punching way below its weight.

Given this, Modi arrives in Riyadh at a time favourable for New Delhi.

His focus will predominantly be on anti-terror measures and economic cooperation. The role Saudi Arabia can play in checking extremism emanating from the region cannot be overstated. Both countries are facing the IS threat and together they can address this menace, if the Saudis so wish.

A true test of Modi’s visit will be to see if the bilateral ties become independent of the relationship either shares with Pakistan. Saudi Arabia’s close links with Pakistan have always prevented Riyadh-New Delhi ties from achieving their true potential. On the Kashmir issue and in the 1971 war Riyadh supported Islamabad. Decades have passed since then and though today the relationship has improved the ‘P factor’ is a constant irritant, especially when it comes to Saudi Arabia-Pakistan military ties.

Read | Modi in UAE: India plays the Gulf card against Pakistan

So it will be a diplomatic masterstroke if Modi gets Saudi King Salman to condemn terrorism of all hues, something on the lines of the joint statement issued during the PM’s visit to the United Arab Emirates in August.

It will be interesting to see how New Delhi and Riyadh word the joint statement keeping in mind the different sensitivities each have concerning developments in the region. While India will want to stress on the role nations like Pakistan play in promoting terror through non-State actors, it will want to avoid a mention of the role Iran and Russia play in Yemen and Syria, which the Saudis would likely want to see included.

Perhaps the biggest and most intriguing question Modi’s Saudi Arabia visit raises is: Has Iran fallen off India’s foreign policy radar?

Read | India should recalibrate ties with West Asian powers

In this din to boost India’s engagement in West Asia, New Delhi should be giving more prominence to its ties with Tehran.

The JCPOA came into effect in the second week of January and India is yet to send a senior minister there to benefit from a post-sanctions Iran. This is a particularly glaring omission since Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Tehran to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a week after JCPOA came into effect. Last weekend Rouhani was in Islamabad to ink several deals to ‘enhance regional stability and security’.

Read | How sanctions-free Iran is a challenge, opportunity for India

In what now appears to be a balancing act to Modi’s Saudi Arabia visit, Dharmendra Pradhan, the minister of state for petroleum and natural gas, will visit Iran in the second week of April.

Diplomacy is an art that needs constant refreshing and countries cannot perennially bank on ‘traditional and cultural ties’.

So what do we make of the hype surrounding Modi’s Saudi Arabia visit, much before anything substantial has been delivered? This overselling of the current visit, I believe, is to forestall an anticipated backlash from the Muslim community in India to the impending Israel visit by the PM.

New Delhi, particularly under the current government, has rightly strengthened and become more open about its ties with Tel Aviv. However, it is not yet clear how this shift is perceived by sections in society.

All these factors put together make Modi’s visit important, but to say that the visit will bring a sea change in bilateral ties is to underestimate the complex geopolitical reality in West Asia — more so, it’s an overestimation of India’s influence in the region.

Read | An India-Iran-Israel alliance could be Modi’s legacy

Post script: The BJP-led NDA government while projecting the prime minister’s overseas visits often tends to oversell it — this is bad diplomacy at best and confusing at worst. Generally when the product is not doing well, marketing executives resort to aggressive sales. Modi’s foreign policy outlook has been a highlight of his term so far — it does not require aggressive sales.

(The author tweets at @vijucherian)