India-Saudi cooperation finesses past Pakistan SIRAJ WAHAB RIYADH | 1st Jul When it comes to the issue of terrorism, Saudi Arabia has always adopted a policy of zero tolerance. It is just that there has not been a clear understanding among many Indians about Saudi Arabia and its strategic security and foreign policy shift. The deportation of the alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba-trained Indian terror suspect Zabihuddin Ansari alias Abu Jundal points to the seriousness with which Saudi Arabia takes its relationship with India. Media analysts and foreign policy experts have detailed the deliberations that took place between the two countries in the run-up to Zabihuddin Ansari's expulsion. The change in Indo-Saudi ties did not come overnight. Before embarking on what everyone now describes as the ice-breaking visit to India in January 2006, the Saudi king and custodian of Islam's two holy mosques, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud made it very clear that Riyadh's relationship with New Delhi will be independent of Islamabad. That was the key. Riyadh was keenly aware of New Delhi's reservations. It tried to ally them as much as it can on various occasions. It is only now that it has been proved beyond any shadow of doubt that Riyadh meant business and that it indeed looked at India without the Pakistani prism. "Zabihuddin Ansari's deportation is a turning point in the history of Indo-Saudi ties," said a Gulf-based analyst. "In one stroke, Saudi Arabia has won over an entire country on a deeply sensitive issue; this, to me, is a game-changer; the mileage that will accrue from this for Saudi Arabia will be phenomenal, because perception is everything, and it removes all elements of doubts whatsoever." Saudi Arabia takes a long time to refashion its foreign policy but once it does then it stands by it. On many occasions, it took a stand that was in stark contrast to that of Islamabad. It was Riyadh that tried, and still tries off and on, to get India into the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), much to the chagrin of Islamabad. Talmiz Ahmad, the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, says Indo-Saudi relations were strengthened with interaction at the highest level when King Saud bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud visited India in 1955, followed, within a year by the visit of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to Saudi Arabia. "Later visits were those of then Crown Prince Faisal to India in 1959 and the visit of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1982. However, it is the visit of King Abdullah to India in January 2006, when he was our guest at Republic Day, that the foundations of the contemporary relationship were laid," he said. Despite all these visible signs, Indians continued to bracket Saudi Arabia with Pakistan. They saw the mighty Gulf nation merely as a petrol-pumping station. In any case, the relationship was never put to test till Zabihuddin Ansari arrived on the scene. This was the case that led to a greater bonding between the two nations. "If the reports are true, then we all can assume how tough it must have been for Riyadh to deport a person who was said to be in the Kingdom on a Pakistani passport," said a top Saudi editor. "Here is proof that Saudi Arabia will not brook any third-party interference vis-Ã -vis its relationship with India." The Saudi editor agrees that there has always been this lingering fear and suspicion in New Delhi that when it came to a crunch issue with Pakistan, Riyadh will not be on its side. "The Indians have always tried to bracket Saudi Arabia with Pakistan, and I don't blame them," he said. "However, since the mid-2000s Riyadh took a completely different view of India. It saw a successful and rising India as a stabilizing force in the region, and then it started reorienting its foreign policy." He is, however, quick to admit that good ties with India do not come at the expense of Pakistan. "Pakistan remains a dear friend, but this issue about Zabihuddin Ansari relates to terrorism ... an issue on which Saudi Arabia has shown no compromise... Once convinced about the incontrovertible proof of Zabihuddin Ansari's nationality, Saudi Arabia had no second thoughts on what to do with him," he said. "Saudi Arabia is against its territory being used for any terror-related activities against any nation in the world." A significant role in bringing the two countries together has been played by the Indian community, which has participated enthusiastically in all the major development projects in Saudi Arabia. It is not surprising that Indians, now numbering nearly 2.2 million, constitute the largest expatriate community in the Kingdom. In turn, the Kingdom is the largest source of crude oil for India, meeting 25%of India's oil imports.