By Syed Ata Hasnain
Even as the Indo-Pacific makes news, the attention of the world over the last few days actually seems more focused on Saudi Arabia, where path-breaking changes, albeit turbulent ones, seem afoot. Before analysing how these affect India’s strategic interests, it would be prudent to briefly recount what’s happening in the kingdom – the custodian of Islam’s main shrines and core center of Wahabi Islam.
The current ruler, King Salman, is the last of the sons of the founder of the House of Saud, King Abdulaziz bin Saud. The Saudi Royal House and the Wahabi clergy have, at best, lived with an uneasy balance of power between them. The royalty has pandered to the clergy’s demands of ensuring the universal spread of the Wahabi brand of Islam, in return for minimal interference in the financial and political management of the nation.
Saudi Arabia remains a crucial country of the Middle East, not just because of the shrines but also because of its economic might brought on by oil – now in decline due to low energy prices and diluting US energy interest. Since 1979, it has found severe competition from Iran, whose Shia ideology is opposed by the Wahabis.
The recent military defeat of the ISIS and the domination of the Syrian Civil War by the Iran-Russia-Syria combine have opened the path for a strategic advantage to Iran; this is feared by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
King Salman’s son, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), 32, has virtually usurped the seat of the Crown Prince. Ever since 2015, his ascent has seen him pursue a path of preparing Saudi Arabia for a post-energy era (beyond 1930). The challenge before him is to purge the old corrupt order – where royalty is law and the clergy’s mission is the spread of its virulent Wahabi ideology – perceived internationally as the prime reason for the rise of Radical Islam.
However, a disastrous war in Yemen, launched at his behest to counter Iran’s proxies, is now coming a cropper. MBS has taken the bait and initiated a transition by detaining or arresting prominent members of the royalty and their cohorts, including extending influence over the 1,00,000 strong National Guard.
How Does This Impact India’s Strategic Interests?
The situation is one of uncertainty as the struggle between the old and the new orders takes shape. It is unlikely the old will give way as easily as may be perceived, leading to possible instability in Islam’s prime citadel.
India has huge strategic interests in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East for a number of reasons. First is its energy security, in which Saudi Arabia has supplanted Iraq as the prime supplier. Turbulence and unrest is never good news, especially as India looks towards a fillip to its economy.
India looks towards bulk crude supplies for its mega refineries at Jamnagar, and the new public sector one coming up at the west coast; the Saudis are the main suppliers from the Middle East as Iran continues to reel under the uncertainty of the nuclear deal.
The second issue is the 2.8 million Indian Diaspora in Saudi Arabia and the overall 8 million people of Indian origin who reside and work in the Middle East remitting close to 35 billion USD every year – a substantial contribution to the economy. Importantly, political turbulence leads to decline in economy and loss of jobs.
If violence reaches a point where the Diaspora will have to be evacuated, then it will make the last exercise of its kind– when Indians were evacuated from Yemen in 2015 – look like a cakewalk. The resultant trauma to millions of families will have a devastating social effect in India.
Third, MBS’ real political leanings remain unclear. If a restructuring of Saudi Arabia is to be done, the nation could depend much more on India’s nonpartisan participation to assist in nation building. This would be at the cost of Pakistan, which has ruled the roost since the days of Zia ul Haq. It could put an end to clandestine networks and controls that Pakistan intelligence has cultivated.
India will need to do a balancing act in straddling its interests. It needs to maintain a strong relationship with Iran and the Shia dispensation for the manifestation of effective trade and strategic links with Afghanistan and Central Asia through the port of Chabahar. Indian support to MBS is likely to be supported by Israel and the US.
Finally, there is a need for transparency about India’s policy, to keep emotions from being triggered by misinformation. One is reminded of the ill-informed Indian Shia quest to raise an army of volunteers to defend Karbala during the rise of the ISIS.
India must hope for a short gestation in the transition underway in Saudi Arabia and contribute in any which way to prevent violence and introduce moderate ideology. That could have a cascading effect on the quest to counter radical Islam.