With a second terrorism suspect, Fasih Mahmood, having been extradited from Saudi Arabia, the desert kingdom has begun to be seen as part of the solution rather than a sponsor of the problem of Islamicist militancy. Not completely by coincidence, Riyadh has emerged during this time period as the largest supplier of crude oil to India. Indian expatriates represent 7% of the kingdom’s population. And since King Abdullah’s State visit in 2006, Riyadh has signalled a desire to be a major energy partner of New Delhi. But the terrorism issue was always a litmus test of the relationship, especially given the long-standing close relations between Riyadh and Islamabad. The question is whether all of this represents a major turnaround in bilateral relations.
While the importance of Saudi Arabia is not in doubt, there should be no doubt that it still has many characteristics that have long made India wary of this country’s embrace. The first, and arguably most dangerous, is the tacit support given to the export of the country’s virulently fundamentalist Wahhabi school of Islam. This is a toxic export and its contamination, however limited, of the Indian secular fabric is unappreciated in New Delhi. The second is the closeness of the Saudis to Pakistan. And it is widely believed Saudi money finances Islamabad’s nuclear and missile programmes. Finally, there is a growing sense that Saudi Arabia is a nation on the geopolitical decline. Its traditional rival, Iran, is on the ascendant and its traditional ally, the US, is likely to be free of any dependency on oil from the Persian Gulf in a few years’ time.
Engagement with Saudi Arabia makes perfect sense. Becom-ing such an important Saudi oil client at a time when Western dem-and is flagging provides leverage both ways. New Delhi’s game sho-uld be to slowly press Riyadh to be more constructive and transparent about its missionary activities and its relations with Paki-stan. Subsequently, it can begin to chip off the more ragged edges of both policies. The assumption is that energy alone will see a convergence of interests in the decades to come. But the opportunity lies in using that convergence to make Riyadh more sensitive to India’s concerns about the potholes that remain in the relationship.