Home Christians Saudi heir apparent Mohammed bin Salman’s India visit comes amidst regional and global turmoil – Observer Research Foundation

Saudi heir apparent Mohammed bin Salman’s India visit comes amidst regional and global turmoil – Observer Research Foundation

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While the ongoing geopolitical tremors will cloud much of MBS’s visit, India and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a pivotal shift over the past decade orchestrated by the new economic realities of the global order.

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty

Saudi Arabia’s king in waiting, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (widely known as MBS) landed in Pakistan over the weekend mere hours after a terror strike orchestrated by Pakistan-backed group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) targeting a convoy of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) killed 42 soldiers in Pulwama, Kashmir. The maiden visit by MBS, the most powerful millennial in the Middle East, to New Delhi comes at a critical time for India and Saudi Arabia alike, both dealing with their own sets of domestic and international challenges.

MBS arrives in New Delhi amidst his own personal chaos back home, with the murder of The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, looming large over his head and accession to the throne. Interestingly, his visit to both Pakistan and India will bring him into a comparatively positive and non-confrontational environment with the former being an ideological, economic and political beneficiary of Saudi’s oil wealth and the latter one of the fastest growing economies on the planet, both important to Saudi’s future security for vastly different reasons.

2006 was a significant year for India — Saudi ties, with the landmark visit of late King Abdullah as the state guest for the country’s Republic Day celebrations and the subsequent signing of the ‘Delhi Declaration’, laying down the foundations for a review on how the Saudis had approached India in the past. This was built upon significantly during the 2010 visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Riyadh, where the partnership was christened as a ‘strategic’ one with the signing of the reciprocal ‘Riyadh Declaration’ giving precedence to the defence and security realms, going well beyond the status-quo of oil and the 3.2 million strong Indian expatriate population in the country. In 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cemented this trajectory even further by also visiting the kingdom.


2006 was a significant year for India — Saudi ties, with the landmark visit of late King Abdullah as the state guest for the country’s Republic Day celebrations and the subsequent signing of the ‘Delhi Declaration’, laying down the foundations for a review on how the Saudis had approached India in the past.


However, MBS’s maiden visit to India comes at a tumultuous time. He already cancelled a part of his extended trip to Malaysia and Indonesia, and landed in Islamabad when India and Pakistan stand at a tipping point over the events in Kashmir, so much so that he returned to Riyadh for a few hours before flying back to the same geography, to New Delhi, so as to not hyphenate his Pakistan visit with that to India. Saudi Arabia, traditionally, has looked upon Pakistan as an extension of its domestic policy, and a drive-in shop for nuclear weapons and other security requirements. To cement this, during his visit to, MBS announced investments to the tune of $20 billion for a cash-strapped Pakistan.

The joint statement released by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan however was problematic, and stands contrary to India’s stance on Pakistan’s policy of using terror as a state policy. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan reiterated their commitment to continue combating extremism and terrorism and expressed their deep appreciation for the achievements and sacrifices made by the two sides in the war against terrorism. They also applauded the martyrs who sacrificed their lives in order to confront this serious scourge and called on the international community to shoulder its responsibilities to join all international efforts to combat global terrorism. They also underlined the need for avoiding politicisation of UN listing regime,” read the statement, virtually walking over India’s approach for the United Nations and the international community to come down on Pakistan for supporting and nurturing groups designated and listed as terror organisations.


For Riyadh, an economy looking for a rehab center for its addiction to petro-dollars, Asian markets such as India and China provide the ideal platforms today instead of its traditional approach towards the West.


While the ongoing geopolitical tremors will cloud much of MBS’s visit, India and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a pivotal shift over the past decade orchestrated by the new economic realities of the global order. For Riyadh, an economy looking for a rehab center for its addiction to petro-dollars, Asian markets such as India and China provide the ideal platforms today instead of its traditional approach towards the West. Saudi Arabia provides around 20% of India’s annual oil requirements, critical for the country’s economic growth, and to remain so for another decade or more at least as Western markets rapidly move towards renewables. This dynamic is set to remain on the forefront of the relationship. However, under MBS, Saudi Arabia is also looking towards one if its largest domestic reform programmes ever conducted as it attempts to shed its ultra-conservative image and move towards a more open and moderate economy and society alike, inspired by its neighbour and closest confidant, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and its successes with the rise of Dubai and Abu Dhabi as major hubs of global finance and wealth. The UAE has acted like a laboratory in driving Saudi reforms home, giving practical examples and showing how to walk the tightrope to open up to the world both culturally and economically without losing political power and ideological capital.

From New Delhi’s perspective, this drive led by MBS to open up the country and take it towards a more approachable kingdom for both the global population and investments is one that works for Indian interests. Buried amongst all this is the fact that both Riyadh and New Delhi have started to work (along with Abu Dhabi, of course) in close quarters on issues relating to defence and counterterrorism. This is mostly being used by both the Saudis and the Emiratis as a major confidence building measure, with setting up of goodwill by (rapidly) deporting people who India has been after for years in some cases, people of Indian origin who were found to have pro-ISIS inclination and more recently the deportation of Christian Michel from Dubai, who was named in the $638 million AugustaWestland scam of 2010. These decisions by Riyadh would have been difficult to imagine till a few years ago, and impossible in the 1990s. The evolving security dynamic between the two states is perhaps the biggest indicator of a dramatic shift on how India was perceived then and now within the top hierarchies of the Saudi political system.


Buried amongst all this is the fact that both Riyadh and New Delhi have started to work (along with Abu Dhabi, of course) in close quarters on issues relating to defence and counter-terrorism.


The visit is expected to further these overtures, and Riyadh has already committed large sums of investment in the country with India and Saudi Aramco, the state owned oil behemoth, partnering to develop a $44 billion refinery and petrochemicals project in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra. Beyond this, India would also look into helping the country with building an IT solutions and backend ecosystem and offer other areas of market expertise that has driven India’s economic growth. The initial reaction to Saudi’s economic liberalisation has seen a windfall of deals internationally, including some that have highlighted internal struggles within the House of Saud that MBS will face in the time to come such as the botched IPO attempt of Saudi Aramco.

MBS’s visit at the moment will be more theoretical than practical for New Delhi, to understand better where Saudi Arabia is aiming to go under the leadership of the 33-year old crown prince after he takes over from King Salman later this year. The Saudi reforms under MBS are yet to unravel, and the longevity and success of the same will depend on both MBS’s management of the vast intricacies of the House of Saud, reception within the conservatives to his reform agendas and the regional state of play in the Middle East. At this juncture, perhaps MBS’s visit to India is immediately more important to the crown prince than the other way around.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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