India-Saudi ties poised for upsurge after Jundal handover (News Analysis)

July 29th, 2012 - 4:34 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan Singh New Delhi, July 29 (IANS) Building upon the positive momentum generated by the handover of 26/11 handler Abu Jundal by Riyadh last month, India and Saudi Arabia are set to intensify their security and economic cooperation as India cuts down on Iranian oil and hikes its oil supply from the most powerful economy in the Middle East.

Amid the languishing pace of justice in Pakistan for the 26/11 victims, the decision of Saudi Arabia to extradite Abu Jundal came as a shot in the arm for New Delhi and has set the stage for an all-round acceleration of strategic and economic ties between India and Saudi Arabia, home to over two million expatriate Indians.

“India’s relations with Saudi Arabia are poised for a major upsurge. It (the handover of Jundal) is the culmination of a decision taken by King Abduallah many years ago to develop strategic relations with India,” Ishrat Aziz, a former ambassador of India and an expert on the region, told IANS.

“Saudi Arabia has been a victim of terrorism itself. Security is the cornerstone of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy and it is looking to India as a major emerging power,” said Aziz. The India-Saudi ties have undergone a sea change, said Aziz, who served as India’s ambassador to Riyadh during the 1987-1994 transition period.

“This relationship is moving in the right direction and has acquired strategic heft in the last few years. It’s going to get stronger in days to come,” Zikrur Rahman, director of the India-Arab Centre at Jamia Millia Islamia, told IANS.

The signs of a transformed relationship are all too visible. Security cooperation has acquired a prominent focus in the bilateral relationship since the historic visit of King Abdullah, the first visit by a Saudi monarch to New Delhi in half a century, in 2006. The Delhi Declaration issued at the end of the Saudi monarch’s visit identified security and counter-terror cooperation as key elements of strategic partnership between the two countries.

The strategic ties were reinforced when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Saudi Arabia in 2010, a landmark trip that saw the signing of an extradition treaty and culminated in the Riyadh Declaration that singled out security cooperation as an important driver of the relationship. Defence minister A.K. Antony’s February 2012 visit saw the two sides setting up a joint committee to chalk out a roadmap for bolstering bilateral defence cooperation, ranging from stepped up high-level exchanges and warship visits to hydrography and training.

Intelligence sharing and the training of Saudi defence personnel in India have become features of bilateral partnership and are expected to grow stronger.

There is also a qualitative shift in mutual perception. India, a knowledge power armed with an economy still growing at around seven percent amidst a global slowdown, has other added attractions for Saudi Arabia, a traditional friend and ally of the US, which is looking east for fresh infusion of technology and skilled manpower.

Another good news for Riyadh, which regards Tehran as a major regional nuisance, is that India has cut down its import of Iranian oil in the face of Western sanctions and has raised purchases from Saudi Arabia.

Bilateral trade between the two countries has shot up to $25 billion in 2010-11 and Riyadh has emerged as India’s top oil supplier.

What has taken experts and Saudi-watchers by surprise is that Saudi Arabia, despite its close ties with Pakistan, handed over to India the prize catch that ended up exposing Islamabad and has infused a new momentum in New Delhi’s quest for 26/11 justice.

What tipped Riyadh in New Delhi’s favour? Was it American pressure or an incrementally improving relations with New Delhi? Ajai Sahni, a counter-terror expert, says Riyadh’s decision was influenced by both factors but also reflected the Arab world’s most powerful nation’s attitude towards a changing world order.

“Saudi Arabia is beginning to lose faith in the Pakistan model of using Islamist extremism to promote external causes. This policy has caused a tremendous backlash in the larger Muslim world,” Sahni told IANS. The relationship with Pakistan, said Sahni, is being re-evaluated in Saudi Arabia, but it does not amount to abandoning Pakistan.

The Saudi establishment’s attitude towards terrorism has shown a marked change in the last decade since 9/11, specially after Riyadh was targeted by terrorists. Besides, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda has been an anathema to the Saudi royal family, and it has watched with concern the growing incestuous ties between al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the chief architect of the 26/11 terror.

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