As part of Delhi’s proactive policy of engaging key actors in the Arabian Gulf, Prime Minister Modi paid his first two-day visit to Saudi Arabia. His tour followed that of his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, who was the kingdom’s guest in February, 2010. Modi was, then, chief minister of Gujarat, after having won a third consecutive term, but was still remembered for his connivance in the Gujarat massacre. Not only did the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation condemn it then, but Riyadh too took serious exception to the riots that had lasted months.
Come 2015, this history was forgotten and the world’s key capitals were rolling out red carpets for a man whose actions were condemned. Riyadh too, invited the Indian premier for an official visit. On April 2, Saudi Arabia accorded the usual protocol given to any head of state or government, invited to the kingdom. Contrary to Indian expectations, the visit did not amount to a coup against Pakistan, nor did Modi apply his charm offensive and pose for trademark selfies. What irked Pakistanis deeply was the fact that a mass-murderer was conferred with the highest Saudi honour, by a country claiming leadership of the Muslim world.
Before Modi returned to Delhi, the controversy over the joint statement on terrorism had hit the roof. According to the Hindustan Times, both the countries, in the joint statement, “called on all states to reject the use of terrorism against other countries; dismantle terrorism infrastructures where they happen to exist and to cut off any kind of support and financing to the terrorists operating and perpetrating terrorism from their territories against other states; and bring perpetrators of acts of terrorism to justice.”
Typically, Delhi interpreted this as an oblique reference to Islamabad and the national media rejoiced over it. The Saudi officials had aimed the wording at Iran, India’s key strategic ally and economic partner.
India was stretching its expectations. It would be bizarre if Saudi Arabia were to accuse Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism while Islamabad is a key partner in the Riyadh-led alliance of 34 countries. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have enjoyed close relations since as far back as the 1940s, when Saudi princes were hosted by the Muslim League in Karachi, and when they donated £10,000 during the famine in Bengal. After Pakistan’s creation, the relations continued to fortify. More recently, the Saudi-led alliance has, reportedly, offered Pakistan Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, the leadership of the multinational Muslim military force, after his retirement in November. Obviously, what has been projected in the joint statement as “shared perception on terrorism”, may not be the case in reality.
India is not only trying to isolate Pakistan, but also attempting to generate a large support-base in the Middle East, for its bid to seek a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Despite ground realities, the joint statement will be used to feed anti-Pakistan rage for domestic political gains in India. The Modi government will exploit it to divert the Congress’s criticism after the arrest of the spy in Balochistan.
Riyadh and Delhi inked five agreements, which encompassed terror financing, bilateral investment promotion, welfare of Indian workers, the preservation of heritage and standardisation of products.
Contrary to some analysts’ assessments, it must be pointed out that rather than one nation negating the other, diplomacy is an art of maximising one’s own interests. Thus, Modi’s visit was not detrimental to Islamabad-Riyadh ties. Pakistan’s eastern neighbour and its sitting leader have limited political and diplomatic capital, particularly in Saudi Arabia, while Delhi’s role during the cold war, role in Afghanistan and trajectory of ties with Tehran, are too important to ignore.
Just days before Modi’s visit, Saudi Arabia, along with the US, banned a number of terror-related outfits, globally, including Kashmiri militant outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba. Thus, there is some optimism in New Delhi’s power circles. What really harms Pakistan is the growing trend of Saudi-Indian trade and investment.
India’s embassies across the Gulf region have done commendable work in opening avenues for trade, investment and the export of manpower. According to Indian claims, the predominantly blue-collar worker manpower in Saudi Arabia alone, soars to 2.9 million — almost equal to the Pakistani manpower there. India’s share of exports to the kingdom has risen steadily since the mid-2000s and especially flourished over the last five years.
Pakistan’s ambassadors are self-centric and rarely interact effectively with the compatriots there. Pakistan’s share of trade in member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has not been growing steadily. Islamabad’s diplomatic missions are marred with internal tussles, red-tapism and the personal agendas of its ambassadors and the ruling elite alike. Delhi’s representative offices abroad, work under long-term and short-term policy goals.
Thanks to the absence of Islamabad’s goal-oriented GCC region policy, India got lucky — be it in the allocation of visas for manpower, or observer status at the Arab League. The Nawaz government has not faired any better than PPP-led government’s appalling policies on domestic production and exports. What matters for Pakistan, is the yearly performance of its embassy in increasing exports, creating common grounds on geopolitical matters and provision of services to the diaspora, regardless of the fact that the envoy may be a political appointee, ex-military general or career diplomat.
For its own strategic and political concerns, Saudi Arabia is not likely to drift towards India and upset its relations with Pakistan, in the foreseeable future. Iran and India have a far deeper, multipronged cooperation, which the Saudis can’t tilt to their advantage, even if desired. Meanwhile, Islamabad can’t cherish relations on the basis of emotions or Muslim solidarity. It is expanding economic relations that build the best firewalls around nations.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 13th, 2016.