Foreign Policy Watch: India-Middle East

[op-ed snap] Beyond Pakistan


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing much

Mains level : India - Saudi Arabia relations


The expansion and institutionalisation of strategic cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia mark the consolidation of a partnership that has long struggled to realise its full potential. 

Efforts in the past

    • Early efforts under Vajpayee – Efforts to end the mutual indifference began during the tenure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee when his foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, traveled to the Kingdom in early 2001. 
    • King Abdullah – Five years later, King Abdullah visited Delhi, the first visit to India by a Saudi monarch in half a century, to announce a new phase in bilateral relations. 
    • Slowed down – Progress in building the partnership remained elusive. It seemed confined to India buying oil from the Kingdom and exporting manpower. 
    • Expanding, limited by Pakistan – There were the beginnings of counter-terror cooperation but the Pakistan factor continued to cast a shadow over the relationship — until recently.

Pakistan factor

    • Balance – The Saudis sought to maintain a balance in their relations with India and Pakistan.
    • Religion + finances – Pakistan has demanded religious solidarity and unending financial support from Riyadh. 
    • Hesitations of India – India was hesitant to adopt a bolder friendship towards Saudi Arabia amidst the obsession with the Pakistan question. 
    • Even in recent visit – when the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, visited Delhi, the question of India’s tensions with Pakistan figured quite prominently. 
    • No reference now – This time, the joint statement issued at the end of PM Modi’s visit made no reference to Pakistan. India appreciated that Saudi Arabia has a lot more on its mind than protecting Pakistan in the name of religious solidarity.
    • It is possible to build a solid partnership with Saudi Arabia on the basis of shared interests.

Saudi interests

    • Neighbor issues – Within its immediate neighborhood, Saudi Arabia has been struggling to cope with an assertive Iran and Turkey. Both of them seek to undermine the authority of the Saudi monarchy within the Kingdom and the region. 
    • If Iran mobilises the Shia militancy against the Kingdom, Turkey chips in with its support to Sunni radicals threatening the House of Saud. 
    • US – increasingly looks unreliable. 
    • Limits to religion – The rapidly growing Saudi population can no longer be kept with a diet of religious orthodoxy.
    • Oil revenues – the generous subsidies from oil revenues are no longer a source of comfort. 
    • Reforms initiated – Saudi Arabia has begun serious social and economic reforms at home and diversification of its security and commercial partnerships abroad. 


    • India has recognised the urgency of seizing this moment and building strong security and economic partnership. 
    • The agreements signed during the PM’s visit include the establishment of a strategic partnership council, deepening energy interdependence, and expanding defense and security cooperation bilaterally as well as in the Indian Ocean region. 


The challenge for India now is to translate this bold new agenda with Saudi Arabia into quick and tangible results.

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