Looking East, Looking West

A new bilateral relationship is emerging across the Near East as India and Saudi Arabia strengthen their ties. The desert kingdom has grown to become India’s foremost supplier of crude oil while the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh realizes that the nation’s security is very much dependent on stability in the Middle East.

Relations between the two countries have been improving since King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited India in 2006. He has since pursued a “Look East” policy, impressed as he was with India’s robust economic growth that has well withstood the global downturn of recent years. Saudi Arabia has been preparing for the day when it runs out of oil. Trade and exchange with the increasingly commercialized economy of India is rather a more attractive prospect in this regard than committing exclusively to China.

From India’s perspective, a more productive relationship with Saudi Arabia fits within a “Look West” course that aims to greaten its leverage both economically and militarily in the Middle East, especially with the countries surrounding the Persian Gulf which supply 70 percent of India’s oil and provide employment to over five million Indian expatriates. India already signed several security and trade agreements with Gulf states and been able to extract a string of accords with the Saudis on the sharing of information technology in the wake of Prime Minister Singh’s visit to Riyadh last February.

In the years between King Abdullah’s visit to New Delhi and Singh’s trip last month, the trade volume of the two countries has exploded, from more than $3 billion in 2005 to almost $25 billion last year.

Aside from the economic benefits to be derived from increased cooperation, India and Saudi Arabia are also finding themselves in agreement on how to address the region’s primary political concerns, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia, as a traditional ally of Pakistan’s, might be able to diffuse tensions between the two arch rivals while both maintain that it would be a mistake for international forces to leave Afghanistan any time soon. During Singh’s visit, both states also reiterated their support for the creation of a Palestinian state.

There is one factor that can still frustrate further progress between the two countries though, which is Iran. While India is fast emerging as the region’s power broker and will in all likelihood have to insist that Iran curtail its nuclear ambitions, the Saudis have long expressed support for the Islamic regime, if only lukewarm at times.

Comments

  1. I’m not entirely sure that it is best to describe the Saudis as having “long expressed support for the Islamic regime, if only lukewarm at times.” Saudi Arabia has not been in support of essentially anything to do with Iran since the Iran-Iraq war, and although they do not support strikes against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it is not correct to interpret that as “support” for Iran. Religio-political differences alone between the two countries introduce sufficient tension/suspicion into the Iran-Saudi Arabia relationship that the idea of Saudi, a reactionary Sunni monarchy, truly supporting a revolutionary Shi’a theocracy is beyond consideration.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I was trying to be cautious in that regard, since, frankly, I’m not entirely sure what the Saudis will do when it comes to either condemning or supporting Iran. So far, their position has been ambiguous and that’s why I suppose it can become a matter of concern in the near future.