India recently played host to Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud — crown prince, deputy prime minister and defence minister of Saudi Arabia. The visit is of the highest level from Saudi Arabia since King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud came here in 2006. This comes as one in a series of high-profile visits by representatives of the Arab world. A week before that India played host to the King of Bahrain, and other high-profile visits from the region have followed since.
India’s cumulative bilateral trade with the Arab countries is more than $110 billion and the region is home to around 7 million Indians. India’s foreign remittances from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries were $29.7bn in 2011. The region also accounts for 70% of India’s energy imports.
The Arab Spring has presented India with an opportunity for greater engagement with the region. Coming as it does on the heels of India’s ‘look west’ policy the country is helping with institutions and knowledge-building in nascent democracies like Egypt. The GCC countries too are looking to non-Western economies to invest their surplus funds, especially now, given their recent disenchantment with the United States role in the region. India, therefore, becomes a natural choice for playing a leading role. Defence ties between India and the GCC countries are also set to increase. Ties between India and Saudi Arabia assume special significance in this context. The official visit of PM Manmohan Singh to Riyadh in 2010 and the Riyadh declaration signed in 2010, elevated the bilateral engagement to ‘strategic partnership’, covering security, economic, defence and political areas.
What are India’s options in this context?
For one, India-Saudi Arabia ties are no longer seen through the prism of India-Pakistan relations. Next, India’s ties with Iran (the visit of whose foreign minister overlapped with that of the crown prince), has not deterred the deepening of Indo-Saudi ties.
Third, India’s stand vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict has not always converged with that of Saudi Arabia’s. Saudi Arabia supports the Syrian opposition. India, as was the case with Libya, has always been against any form of foreign intervention. At the same time, in spite of its membership in the BRICS, it has not always converged with them on Syria. On a number of Security Council resolutions on Syria, India, as a non-permanent member of the Council, had abstained from voting.
In the Durban declaration in March last year, the BRICS countries called for “a Syrian-led political process leading to a transition”. India’s position has been more calibrated because its geopolitical situation is different from Russia’s or China’s. This, however, causes India to be perceived as being Janus-faced in the Arab world. But that does not mean India should support the Syrian rebels. On the contrary, India should refrain from taking sides without shying away from criticism where it is due. That will show up India as a supporter of Arab rights.
Aditi Bhaduri is an independent journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal