Indian PM Modi in Riyadh!
All eyes will be on his meetings with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud's son, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who many diplomats and Saudis feel could be the future King.
Across Riyadh, the 30-year-old Prince's pictures are on hoardings alongside his father, and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef. Modi is expected to meet prominent members of the royal family, as per protocol. New Delhi does not want to get drawn into the palace politics since there is an intense rivalry between Nayef, who is the Interior Minister, and his much younger cousin.
Apart from official meetings, Modi will also meet top CEOs of major Saudi companies, visit the Masmak fort, interact with the Indian community Diaspora for investments and visit Tata Consultancy centre, which has trained over 1,000 Saudi women. He will also meet Indian workers at a project being implemented by L&T in Dahiat Namar in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia's keenness to partner India in a fight against terrorism is predicated on its own experience of being at the receiving end of terrorism, and a threat perception arising out of global terror networks like Al Qaeda and Islamic State. Saudi Arabia has taken several steps in enhancing intelligence and security cooperation with India in the recent past. Many others suspected of involvement in terrorist activities have also been deported to from Saudi Arabia to India since then. New Delhi feels it implies that the Saudis mean business. Having looked at their bilateral relations only through the prism of Pakistan, both India and Saudi Arabia had been limiting the possibilities of wider and more meaningful cooperation for a long time.
On the eve of Modi's visit to Riyadh and under pressure from White House, Saudi Arabia has sent a pro-India signal by imposing sanctions on Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Al Qaeda. These entities include those who bankrolled LeT chief Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, the supposed mastermind of 26/11 Mumbai attack. Riyadh and the US jointly announced this decision in Washington while Modi was there to attend the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) meeting. The two countries, particularly the latter, appear to have deliberately chosen the moment in Washington where heads of over 50 countries had gathered to convey a 'warning' to Pakistan.
Pakistan had certainly been aware that it was in for a rebuke from India via USA. That's why Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chose to stay away from such an important meeting of world leaders. Russian president Putin already announced that Russia boycotted the summit, citing important issues and irregularities.
Indian media sources suggest to Modi to impress upon Saudi leaders the need to put further pressure on Pakistan to act against JeM and Azhar and to send a powerful message across that cross-border terrorism must stop. Modi is likely take up the issue regarding Pathankot mastermind Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar. Modi might tell his hosts how disappointed India was with China for having blocked the UN's bid to ban Azhar at the behest of Pakistan, one day after Saudi acted against LeT and its operatives.
The security situation in the Arabian Gulf and Middle East, the fluctuations in oil prices, and the gradual withdrawal of the US as a guarantor of security in the region have forced Saudi Arabia to have its own pivot to East.
India, with its historic ties with West Asia, its vast Diaspora employed in the region too realized the futility of confining relations to trade, culture and people-to-people contacts. It needed a hard look at security and strategic dimension of relations.
The ice was broken after the visit of the Saudi king Abdullah to India in 2004 after five decades. Manmohan Singh's visit to Riyadh in 2010 began the process of unlocking the potential. During Singh's visit, the two countries signed the Riyadh Declaration, which envisioned the strategic partnership.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan enjoy a relationship of trust, depth, shared Islamic values and culture. India can't wish it away. Saudi Arabian foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir, during his visit to New Delhi, recently emphasized that Riyadh's relationship with Pakistan stood independent of India and will stay so.
The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) has further alerted the Gulf leadership to the threat terrorism poses to all and the need to move away from the selective engagement. The danger posed by the ISIS and the strategy to combat it might also be on top of Modi's agenda during his stay in Riyadh.
India is lucky that its Muslim youth have been insulated from ISIS propaganda and recruitment. Terrorism experts argue that the ISIS has been losing ground in Syria and Iraq, forcing the outfit to fan out in other countries and look for other vulnerable areas.
It has got a foothold in Afghanistan. So, Modi must be cautious and avoid getting involved into a larger anti-ISIS war in the Middle East.
Besides Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and India will also engage on Iran. Saudi-Iran relations have nosedived in the recent past. Pakistan has offered to mediate between the two. Modi thinks he has an historic opportunity to unlock India's potential in West Asia.
With reports of the Saudi King being unwell - some in Riyadh believe he suffers from dementia - Prince Mohammad, who is second-in-line for the throne, will be wooed by the Indian leadership. When Chinese President Xi Jinping went to Saudi Arabia, he too had a separate meeting with him. The Deputy Crown Prince also met Pakistan's Army chief Raheel Sharif during his visit to Pakistan.
Saudi Arabia will also want India to take a position on Iran's role in the sectarian violence in the region. Riyadh wants India to be part of the security coalition. Will Modi come out and support the war in Yemen? These are issues which will be taken up and watched closely.
Prince Mohammad bin Salman - in diplomatic circles, he is referred to as MBS - is not just the deputy Crown Prince, but also the Defence Minister and the Chief Economic Planner of the Saudi Kingdom. Ever since he was given these crucial positions last year - after his father became King following his elder brother's death in January 2015 - he has been driving the agenda on behalf of the country.
Under his leadership, while the war against Houthis in neighbouring Yemen has evoked criticism, his economic agenda - including his announcement on Friday afternoon about selling shares in the country's biggest oil company and raising $2 trillion - has won him accolades. The crackdown against dissidents and activists, with as many as 76 executions this year and more than 150 last year, are also being seen as his brainchild.
Saudi Arabia is facing two major challenges: economy and terrorism. New Delhi expects both Saudi and India to come together on these two areas. The information-sharing agreement, signed in 2006 during King Abdullah's visit to India, is expected to be renewed. This visit is expected to open a new era of military relationship.
Published by HT Syndication with permission from Asian Tribune.
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