New Delhi: Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud’s visit to New Delhi comes at a time when the Asian region and the global powers are grappling with the crisis created by the hasty departure of US troops that has led to the return of Taliban in Afghanistan. Though Riyadh is not actively involved in Kabul, the Indian and Saudi governments have built great trust and comfort in the past few years to crack this contentious issue.
Unlike in the ‘80s when the United States was using the money and resources of Saudi Arabia to train and equip the Mujahideen to overthrow the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, this time around US government has preferred to use Doha to geographically locate the talks as well as deploy the hyperactive Qatari foreign office to serve as an intermediary to broker the agreement with Taliban.
After severing its diplomatic ties with Doha for 4 years, when it accused the gas-rich emirate of supporting terror networks, Saudis recently restored their relationship with them.
Qataris had acknowledged the Saudi accusation that it had supported Muslim brotherhood, which Saudis believe had tried to overthrow their kingdom.
This messy rupture had resulted in new alignments and the splintering of Saudi Arabia-led Sunni alliance. To spite Riyadh, Qataris had teamed up with Iranians and Turks to build a counterpoint to the House of Saud. Now the same Doha-led network has been used by the US to choreograph its exit from Afghanistan.
More recently, due to Iraq’s mediation, Saudis and Iranians have kick-started talks to iron out their considerable differences. It’s an important development whose impact would be felt in different ways, including in Afghanistan.
Interestingly, both India and Saudi were not in the loop when it comes to the finer details of the US-Taliban agreement, hence, their return to a conversation on strategic issues including the bizarre happenings in Kabul has far deeper implications than it is understood.
Despite its troubles due to the Houthis and the pressure that US President Joe Biden is bringing on Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) due to his alleged involvement in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, Saudi Arabia remains a formidable power in the region.
As a custodian of the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina, they command great influence in the Muslim world. Due to its extraordinary wealth, Saudis sustain many countries in the region including a cash-strapped Pakistan and Egypt.
Its sovereign fund and its investment support many companies and charities all over the world. So, the forthcoming talks with a strategic ally like India will have deep implications for Afghanistan, as well as, its supporter and mentor in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had till now relied largely on the largesse of Riyadh. Saudis have ticked off Pakistan a few times in the past.
In fact, when Indian and Saudi Arabian foreign ministers speak with each other, one could be assured that they would also discuss Pakistan and its alleged duplicitous behavior when it comes to dealing with the Taliban.
It is a charge that finds resonance with some recent accusations emanating from the US House of Representatives in Washington.
Saudi Arabian government would also feel vindicated in their opposition to India’s investment of the Chabahar port in Iran. Though never overtly, the Saudis had claimed that Indians were pursuing their “imagined interest” by pursuing a port that was contingent on the stability in Afghanistan and would only end up providing legitimacy and heft to a sanctioned country like Iran.
India’s investment in Chabahar and Afghanistan were guided by the geopolitical reasons to sidestep Pakistan and access Central Asian markets and join up with the Russian-sponsored North-South Corridor. Till New Delhi re-aligns the project, the Chabahar project is almost dead. Now Afghans under the Taliban government want to use the route to the sea to Karachi port or the China-built Gwadar port.
All these developments present new security challenges. Till Donald Trump was the President of the US, India was working together with the signatories of the Abraham Accord.
Saudi Arabia was not one of them, but UAE, its close ally, was the hub around which the accord had been put in place. After the exit of Donald Trump and Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu, the defense compact has lost steam.
But how geo-politics plays out in Afghanistan could give a new meaning to the old order. Hence, the meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries with Ajit Doval, National Security Advisor, should be watched closely.
It is possible that many of the security arrangements that exist between India and Saudi Arabia could be put to active use to take on the new challenges. This thought process was visible when the Indian Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane visited Riyadh and Abu Dhabi last December.
This was the first-ever visit by an Indian Army chief to the Gulf countries. After the change in US administration, there may be a slowdown in these diplomatic and military exchanges, but the two countries held a joint naval exercise, the Al-Mohed Al-Hindi. In this, a destroyer INS Kochi took part in “Zayed Talwar” drill with the United Arab Emirates near Abu Dhabi.
Besides geo-political issues, India is one of the largest purchasers — buys 18 per cent of its oil needs — of Saudi crude oil. The country has benefited from the sanctions that have been imposed on Iran. Also, the bilateral trade is worth USD 33 billion leavened further 2.6 million Indians who reside in this country.
The two countries have collaborated together in the past and Afghanistan provides the litmus test of how they can not just protect each other’s interest, but also manage the Taliban and chasten a belligerent Pakistan to make ordinary Afghans’ life better.