Saudis Alarm Pakistan with India Outreach

Saudi Arabia tries to steer India away from its “nonaligned” position to isolate Iran, to the alarm of its ally Pakistan.

The Washington Post reports that Saudi Arabia hopes to improve ties with India by deporting an Indian national who is accused of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack and planning to extradite another.

“For years, India watched helplessly as many of its most wanted terrorism suspects traveled freely to Saudi Arabia from Pakistan with new identities and passports and without fear of arrest,” the newspaper writes. No more, it seems.

The deportations are part of a charm offensive on the oil kingdom’s part. After Saudi king Abdullah visited New Delhi in 2006, the two countries signed cooperation agreements in 2010 on counterterrorism, energy and narcotics. Last year, Riyadh agreed to double its oil exports to India to help it reduce its reliance on Iran.

Iran looms large over Indian-Saudi ties, writes Walter Russell Mead at The American Interest. The Saudis “want India’s help in putting pressure on Iran and are helping India replace any oil lost as a result of declining purchases from what Saudi thinks of as the hated Persian heretics.”

Western pressure on India to reduce its oil buys from Iran, which is suspected of developing a nuclear weapons capacity, has failed to produce much more than cautious statements of support from New Delhi. India is still highly dependent on Iranian petroleum exports.

As a key American ally in the Persian Gulf region and Sunni power in competition with Shia Iran for regional hegemony, Saudi Arabia fears that a nuclear capable Iran will upset the balance of power in its rival’s favor. Saudi officials have warned that if Iran reaches the ability to build nuclear weapons, their country will seek to attain the same.

India has not been able to escape the deepening fray between Iran and the West, despite its attempts to stay neutral. In February, an assassination attempt on an Israeli diplomat occurred in its capital, one for which Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly blamed Iran.

Helping steer India away from its reflexive “nonaligned” opposition to Western power projection is another reason for Saudi Arabia to seek closer ties with India, writes Mead. It “helps clear the path for what many Saudis deeply hope will be an effective Western military strike that puts Iran in its place.”

The Saudi outreach to India is an embarrassment for Pakistan which India says was involved in orchestrating the Mumbai attacks. American military officials have similarly accused the Pakistanis of deploying Islamic radicals as instruments of their foreign policy which frustrates the NATO war effort in neighboring Afghanistan.

“The Saudis are not turning their backs on Pakistan completely,” however, according to Mead.

Ties between the two countries are extremely deep. These two Sunni Islamic states that were aligned with Washington during the Cold War and that cooperated against the Soviets in Afghanistan have a lot of history together. Many observers believe that the Saudis provided financial support and other assistance in Pakistan’s nuclear program, and there are many indications that a range of prominent Pakistani politicians nurture close links with the Saudis, links from which they derive substantial benefits of various kinds.

All the same, policymakers in Islamabad will regard the Saudi rapprochement with their nemesis warily.

Despite the reopening of NATO supply routes into Afghanistan, American-Pakistani relations continue to unravel under the weight of American drone strikes into Pakistani territory and Pakistan’s reluctance to open more fronts against Islamic insurgents. It must seem in Islamabad that it is being abandoned by its allies.