Prime Minister Modi receiving Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Delhi airport, February 20, 2019
Looking back at the one-day — actually, a little over half a day — first state visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to Delhi on February 20 at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the question surges instinctively: What was it all about? It seems like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Indeed, it has been a strange event, padded up heavily in protocol but kept as a strictly segregated affair between the Prime Ministers Office and the Ministry of External Affairs on Raisina Hill, which reminds one of the secret society of the Freemasons, so full of rituals and extensive symbolism wrapped in “bloody oaths”.
Five MOUs were signed during MBS’ state visit. Of course, the standing joke in South Block is that MOUs are not meant for implementation but are essentially photo-ops, but even then the ministries concerned are usually brought in to give the occasion an air of solemnity and purpose.
But the cavalier attitude so manifestly apparent gives away the play. Incredibly enough, our ambassador in Riyadh alone performed the ritual of signing on the dotted line for three out five MOUs. This cannot have a precedent in the Indian protocol during state visits.
Evidently, the MOUs are so patently inconsequential that the PMO decided that the top officials of the relevant Indian ministries — finance and investment, housing, tourism, information — did not have to waste their time over the ritual.
Equally, the verbose joint statement of 2066 words, which was issued in Delhi after the visit, only serves to give the lie away that the entire visit lacked any substantive content worth mentioning.
So, where’s the beef? (For the benefit of the uninitiated, in the urban dictionary, it’s an all-purpose phrase questioning the substance of an idea, event or product.) Yes, there was no beef in this Saudi burger in comparison with what Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan sought and obtained.
But a veggie burger is by no means passé. It is even healthier diet. Suffice to say, the Crown Prince’s visit was important enough for Modi to be at the Delhi airport tarmac to receive the dignitary with a warm hug and a bouquet of flowers. It needs no elaboration that Saudi Arabia is a hugely important partner country for India.
The bonhomie of their carefully nurtured bonding needed to be preserved, which was established at their last meeting in Argentina on the sidelines of the G20 summit in late November.
No, Modi wasn’t excessive, considering the most important single outcome of the Crown Prince’s visit — the cementing of a partnership that has been under discussion between the Saudi Aramco and Reliance Industries.
Not many people would have noticed in December that the influential Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al Falih, who is an old Aramco technocrat himself, had come all the way to attend the pre-wedding ceremonies of the wedding of Mukesh Ambani’s daughter. Al Falih had tweeted after meeting with Ambani at that time: “We discussed opportunities for joint investments and cooperation in petrochemical, refining and communication projects.”
The fact of the matter is that although the $44 billion mega refinery-cum-petrochemical project at Ratnagiri is spluttering and may not meet the 2025 deadline (in which Saudis agreed to invest $11 billion), Saudi Aramco is looking for other investment opportunities.
The Saudis are particularly keen to enter the lucrative downstream retail energy sector which has enormous potential and is highly lucrative. The Saudi Aramco has been seeking an optimal Indian partner and exploring options, but with Modi’s intervention, Reliance may win the trophy.
By the way, Amin Al Nasser, the CEO of Saudi Aramco, who was in the Crown Prince’s entourage, had met Mukesh Ambani in January in anticipation of the Crown Prince’s forthcoming visit to India.
Of course, the scope for Saudi investments in India’s energy sector is enormous. It is a relationship made in heaven — Indian economy is expanding at such a rate that it is billed as a huge buzzer of energy and Saudi Arabia is an energy superpower. The visiting Crown Prince has voiced an opinion that Saudi investments anywhere on the region of $100 is conceivable.
Clearly, India must welcome and keenly facilitate all the investments that the Saudis are willing to make in our economy. The Indian diplomatic thrust in that direction must be purposive.
To be sure, there is a lot of dust in the air today that the Saudis and Pakistanis are thick as thieves. So what?
The brotherly relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is historical, cultural, political, and highly strategic insofar as Pakistani military has traditionally acted as the Praetorian Guard of the Saudi regime and that role as the provider of security has not only great relevance today but is of existential concern for the Saudi royal family in the period ahead even as the dull roar of the US’ withdrawal from the Middle East is quite audible lately.
India is too big a country to have a zero sum attitude — ‘Either you’re with us, or with the Pakistanis’. True, the Saudis used to have wrong notions about the Kashmir issue but incrementally they came to understand perfectly well that a redrawing of India’s territorial boundaries is not on cards.
But as the Custodian of the Holy Mosques, Saudi king is obliged to voice concerns over the welfare of Muslims anywhere. So long as that does not translate as interference in India’s internal affairs or turn into an intrusive approach on the ground, where is the problem?
Are the Saudis impeding us from tackling the profound alienation of the people in the valley in J&K? Beyond that, it is unrealistic to expect the Saudis to get into our bandwagon and berate Pakistan. Evidently, in the Saudi perception, terrorism remains a problem between India and Pakistan so long as the Kashmir problem remains unresolved.
The Saudis are far from alone in the world community in counselling that India and Pakistan should bilaterally try to resolve their differences and disputes and that Kashmir is a core issue. This Saudi stance is faithfully reflected in their joint statement with Pakistan following the Crown prince’s visit to Islamabad.
The Saudi stance is actually the majority opinion in the world community as regards India-Pakistan tensions. Of course, this is not to say that the Saudis are lily white in their own attitude toward terrorism. In fact, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are joined at the hips in using terrorism as a tool in their foreign policies. Furthermore, there is a Faustian pact today between the two countries as collaborators in regional politics. (See my blog The geopolitics of Pulwama.)
However, the bottom line is that geoeconomics must prevail as the charioteer of Indian diplomacy at the present stage of our country’s development. With regard to West Asia, this is of crucial importance, too.
It will be a Himalayan blunder to spurn the Saudi overture toward India. The Saudis are savvy enough to separate the grain from the chaff and would know that Pakistan is not a patch on India as a world-class partner potentially. As their own rapidly growing ties with Russia suggests, the Saudis are perfectly capable of juggling many balls in the air and can hook up with multiple guys on a regular basis, usually without them knowing.