SAUDI ARABIA AS INTERLOCUTOR IN SOUTH ASIA?

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 7 Mar 2010

Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra

Mediating in conflicts in South Asia particularly between India and Pakistan since the inception of bilateral animosities has become a prize catch in international politics since long. In the list of players as mediator the name that has emerged recently is that of Saudi Arabia. Indian Prime Minster visited Saudi Arabia on 27 February 2010 on a three day state visit. The visit at the highest level that took place after 28 years has evoked optimism in bilateral relations, but at the same time it has raised apprehensions as the discussions during the visit bring to the fore.

India signed about ten bilateral agreements with Saudi Arabia during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister. The last time any Indian Prime Minister visited the most powerful country in the Gulf was in 1982 when Indira Gandhi was in the Gulf country. It can be mentioned here that Saudi Arabia is the largest supplier of oil to India. During the visit of Singh, many agreements in the fields of regional security, terrorism, money laundering, etc. were signed. A prominent agreement was the signing of the extradition treaty between the two countries. The spirit of the Delhi Declaration signed during the visit of the King Abdullah to Delhi in January 2006 was further bolstered with the signing of the Riyadh Declaration during the visit of Singh.

But, the visit and its outcome have been virtually overshadowed by a controversial statement by the Indian Minister of State in External Affairs, Shashi Tharoor, who was also part of the delegation led by the Prime Minister. Tharoor to a question from media on 28 February 2010 said that Saudi Arabia can play the role of a ‘valuable interlocutor’ between India and Pakistan to ease tensions in bilateral relations. It is yet to be unclear whether the utterances by the Indian Minister were gaffe or part of a deliberate policy intention but the opposition in India took umbrage at the Minister’s statement. Most of the Indian political circles have expressed reservation at such an idea of South Asian amity at the behest of Saudi Arabia. Bhartiya Janata Party, the main opposition party in the Indian parliament called the statement ‘utterly irresponsible.’

The Left parties also criticised the statement on the same ground. Almost all opposition parties have urged the Prime Minister to clarify in the Indian parliament on his return the true nature and spirit of the statement of his minister. There were also references to the recently held foreign secretary level talks in New Delhi on 25 February 2010, which concluded without any tangible results. Pakistan during the talks called Indian dossier on Hafeez Saeed, allegedly the master mind behind 26/11 Mumbai attack, as ‘literature’, not evidence. The acrimonious tone in bilateral relations got further highlighted when the bilateral talks ended without any joint statement.

Undoubtedly Saudi Arabia is a major player in the regional politics. Reportedly, the United Nations officials had met the leaders of moderate Taliban in the Saudi capital Riyadh in January 2010 to broker peace in the trouble-torn Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia has enough clout in ruling establishment in Islamabad thus the fact remains that it enjoys special relations with Pakistan. Its influence on Pakistan in terms of economic, religious and cultural sphere is enormous. Pakistan’s civilian rulers and army, both enjoy special rapport with the ruling establishment in Saudi Arabia. The two major religious places in Islam- Mecca and Medina- are situated in Saudi Arabia. However, there is also a point of view that the powerful Gulf country has used its influences to spread radical Sunni Islam called Wahabbism in Pakistan, and surrounding regions. It is argued that the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan and other radical organisations draw inspiration heavily from the Gulf country. Credence to these arguments also stemmed from the fact that Saudi Arabia recognised Pakistan-supported Taliban regime in Afghanistan that emerged in the mid 1990s with its radical agenda.

Expectedly, the Pakistan press immediately pointed out the minister’s statement as Indian keenness to involve Saudi Arabia in the peace negotiations between the two countries. But, the statement of Shashi Tharoor contradicted the official position of Indian government. Indian official position since long, particularly after the 1972 Shima Accord between the two South Asian neighbours has been that all bilateral and contentious issues between India and Pakistan must be resolved through peaceful bilateral dialogue without any third party interference. The only and once successful initiative by any third party in moderating tense relations between the two countries took place in 1965-1966 when then Soviet Premier Alexi Kosygin took the initiative to call both the leaders of both countries to the dialogue table in Tashkent in the wake of a full fledged war between India and Pakistan.

The potentials of Saudi Arabia as a player in India-Pakistan dialogue can be a matter of debate. However, the fact remains the Saudi royal kingdom can use its levers in Pakistan to tame the radical elements sprouting from its soil. How far that is possible will depend on the will power of Saudi establishment, as well as the will of the Pakistan establishment to curb these elements. Besides India, Pakistan of late has also become a victim of terrorism and religious fundamentalism. In this background, the best case scenario for India, Pakistan as well as Saudi Arabia will be that the Saudi establishment pulls the right strings in Pakistan in right direction so that the violent, radical elements can be curbed. In that way Saudi Arabia can serve to the best for peace and amity in South Asia.

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Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is part of the research faculty at the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, India.

 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 7 Mar 2010.

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