Ever since its massive oil wealth started becoming an important and sometimes decisive factor in regional or global power equations, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has enjoyed global attention. Muslims worldwide looked at the kingdom’s ruler as the ‘custodian’ of the two holiest mosques in Islam—the Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina, where millions of pilgrims congregate annually. Using its vast financial resources, Saudi Arabia also became the epicentre of conservative ‘Wahhabi’ Islam worldwide. It wielded enormous and almost unquestioned clout across its entire Arab neighbourhood. The US ensured and virtually guaranteed the kingdom’s security.
The past year has witnessed serious erosion in the desert kingdom’s fortunes and influence. The dramatic reduction in global oil prices has almost halved its revenues. The US has replaced Saudi Arabia as the largest oil producer in the world. Washington is no longer heavily dependent on Saudi energy resources. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab partners now see the US making peace and reconciliation with Iran—the kingdom’s arch regional adversary and the most powerful source of inspiration for Shias (considered heretic) worldwide. Iran, in turn, has emerged as a regional power directly challenging vital Saudi interests, particularly in Iraq and Syria.
It is the Iranian ‘Revolutionary Guard’ and not the Saudis, who are providing muscle and inspiration to the embattled Shia-dominated Iraqi army, to fight the challenge posed by the extremist and indeed barbaric Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). It is again Iran that is frustrating Saudi ambitions in neighbouring Syria. Worse still, Saudi Arabia has got itself involved in a ‘no-win’ situation by seeking to impose a government of its choice, through relentless aerial bombing on the neighbouring, economically backward Yemen. The kingdom is also faced with a religious and ideological challenge to its Wahhabi practices, by ISIL, which unlike the Saudis is violently intolerant of Shia practices. Shia mosques in Saudi Arabia have been attacked and dozens of worshippers killed. Obviously rattled by these developments, investigations by Saudi security agencies have led to the arrests and detention of 431 Arab and African residents and Saudi nationals, for alleged attempts to launch suicide bombings, across the kingdom.
Politics, it is said, makes strange bedfellows. The two nations most shaken and alarmed by the US, Russia, China, UK, France and Germany concluding an agreement to end economic sanctions on Iran, in return for curbs on its nuclear programme, are Saudi Arabia and Israel. While the Saudis have been subtle about their reservations on the US-Iran nuclear deal, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has gone virtually ballistic in his position and is headed for a showdown with the Obama administration. These two strange bedfellows will spare no effort to scuttle the nuclear deal in the US Congress. In a larger perspective, one is seeing the emergence of close but clandestine Saudi-Israeli strategic partnership to counter both Iran and ISIL.
India has to take due note of these developments and respond deftly. There are an estimated 1.8 million Indians living in Saudi Arabia, who remit back around $8.5 billion annually. Saudi Arabia is the largest source of our oil imports. The desert kingdom has also been forthcoming in addressing issues of concern on terrorism, ever since the visit of the former ruler King Abdullah to India, even going to the extent of deporting terrorism suspects. While the US will remain a major partner of Saudi Arabia on security issues, Riyadh will look for new regional and global partners. India needs to carefully look at enhancing maritime cooperation with Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners. India has, in recent days, been a venue for facilitating Israeli-Saudi contacts for mutual understanding. While we should avoid getting drawn into the vortex of sectarian (Shia-Sunni) and civilisational (Arab-Persian) rivalries in our western neighbourhood, we can facilitate efforts for reconciliation and peace, when required.