Dealing with the Arabs
Ministers and officials are required to be seen and not heard, except when specifically authorised to speak publicly while accompanying the Prime Minister on official visits abroad. It is a pity that Mr Shashi Tharoor chose to pontificate on substantive issues even before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met Saudi Arabia’s monarch, King Abdullah, in Riyadh, stirring up avoidable controversy during this important bilateral visit.
Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producer in the world, located in a turbulent region from where two-thirds of the world’s oil supplies come. Around 1.8 million Indians live in Saudi Arabia and contribute to the $ 55 billion that Indian expatriates remit annually. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has agreed to a strategic partnership with India which will cover not only enhanced oil supplies but also promote closer ties in areas ranging from defence and space technology to investment in our petrochemical sector, apart from exchange of information on terrorism and money-laundering.
The India-Saudi Arabia summit took place amid new tensions and rivalries in the Gulf region, arising from the deep suspicions that have characterised Persian-Arab rivalries over the centuries. The American invasion of Iraq and the replacement of a Sunni minority Government by a majority Shia-led coalition under Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki have added a new element of bitter Shia-Sunni antagonism to existing Persian-Arab differences.
The Shia majority Government in Iraq complains of Saudi attempts to destabilise it by backing the Sunni-dominated Baath Party found by Saddam Hussein. It has also complained of the attitude of its other Arab Sunni neighbours, Egypt and Jordan. Iran alleges mistreatment of its Haj pilgrims and support for its Opposition by Saudi Arabia.
In Northern Yemen, Saudi Arabian and Yemeni forces are battling an insurgency by Yemen’s Houthi Shias, evidently backed by Iran. Under pressure from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Arabsat has discontinued facilities for Iran’s Arabic language news and television networks beamed to Arab countries. Fearing Iran, the six-nation Arab Gulf Cooperation Council is allied to the US, which is determined to contain Iran’s regime.
Exacerbating these tensions are concerns arising from Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Despite Iranian denials, its nuclear programme is evidently designed to give it a nuclear weapons capability and keep its nuclear options open. Given the hostility of the Iranian regime to Israel, fomented by intemperate statements by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Israel should be “wiped off the map”, Israel has threatened to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
For the past five months, the US, backed by the UK, France and Germany, has endeavoured to get the UN Security Council to impose “crippling sanctions” on Iran through measures like banning the sale of refined petroleum products to that country. They have also proposed sanctions that would cover Iran’s Central Bank and a number of firms and individuals linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, apart from its shipping, insurance and banking industries. Faced with opposition from Russia and China, the US would inevitably be forced to water down its proposals. Moreover, within the Security Council countries like Brazil and Turkey have made it clear that they do not favour “crippling sanctions” against Iran.
It is not just Israel and the US that are concerned at Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Saudi Arabia and Iran’s other Arab GCC neighbours do not relish the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Moreover, unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia has taken a constructive approach towards a peace settlement in West Asia, which would guarantee Israel’s right to exist in security, side by side with a viable Palestinian state.
Given this background, Mr Manmohan Singh and King Abdullah had no difficulty in agreeing on the need for a ‘two-state solution’ to the West Asian impasse — an issue on which India and Iran have little common ground. While Arab States may make pro forma noises about India’s relations with Israel, the reality is that most of them, including Saudi Arabia, have either overt or covert links with the Jewish state.
But, the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme will not go away and New Delhi will have to keep a close eye on possibilities of Saudi Arabia and others seeking a nuclear umbrella from their Sunni ally, Pakistan. Saudi Arabia’s Defence Minister Prince Sultan has visited Pakistan’s nuclear facilities in Kahuta and the redoubtable AQ Khan has been effusively welcomed in the past in Riyadh.
There has to be a measure of realism in India’s relations with major powers in the Gulf region. Despite the best intentions of King Abdullah, concerns do remain about funding of Wahaabi oriented radical Islamic organisations across South Asia by Saudi ‘charities’ and the kingdom has not exactly shown understanding of Indian sensitivities by stewarding OIC moves on Jammu & Kashmir.
Moreover, while India and Saudi Arabia have expressed support for the values enshrined in the Constitution of Afghanistan, it has to be remembered that the kingdom had backed the Taliban and changed its position only because Mullah Omar remained closely allied to Osama bin Laden. One should not presume that Saudi Arabia will remain averse to a return of the Taliban if Mullah Omar is marginalised and the Taliban’s links with Osama bin Laden terminated.
Given the anxiety of Nato countries in Afghanistan to strike a deal with the Taliban, it is imperative that New Delhi retains close ties with Tehran, which shares its aversion for any return of Taliban extremism to Kabul. Finally, Iraq is aiming to increase its oil production from two million barrels per day to 12 million barrels per day in coming years, with Karbala and Najaf re-emerging as major centres of influence in Shia Islam. We have been less than pro-active in building relations with the post-Saddam dispensation in Iraq.
New Delhi no longer has the luxury of remaining aloof from these developments in its western neighbourhood, as it will be compelled to take positions on these issues when it becomes a non-permanent member of the Security Council later this year. India can position itself to play a more pro-active role in the oil-rich Gulf region by more imaginative diplomacy in coming years. Much more can and should be done for increasing our investment and participation in the exploration, production and utilisation of the oil and gas resources in our western neighbourhood.