Saudi Arabia’s Rising Influence and India

A ‘middle kingdom’ dawns on India’s west

The article highlights the Saudi Arabia’s Rising Influence, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as the main influencer of the Arab world’s agenda. It emphasizes India’s need to realign its strategy and strengthen bilateral ties with Saudi Arabia. (Source: The Hindu, 25th May)

What is the context?

Saudi Arabia hosted the 32nd Arab League Summit in Jeddah in 2023. It was unique in multiple ways. After 12 years, all 22 Arab states got together again, with 17 of them represented at the head of state or government level. The summit readmitted Syria and heard the Ukrainian President, a special invitee.

The post-summit “Jeddah Declaration” was moderate in political optics and showed realism for the contemporary socio-economic challenges facing the Arabs. Although it highlighted the staple pro-Palestinian agenda, it conspicuously refrained from mentioning Israel by name. Similarly, all Iran-related issues were omitted. Instead, it called for “stopping foreign interference in the domestic affairs of Arab countries and categorically reject all support for the formation of armed groups and militias”. There was no mention of any non-Arab issue, including Ukraine and the oil market.

The Saudi angle

These subtle nuances would hint at the emergence of Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the main arbiter of the Arab world’s agenda for the foreseeable future. During the months of the run-up to this summit, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took several steps to declutter the Kingdom’s regional agenda:

  • He held triple summits in Riyadh with the Chinese President, the Russian President, and the Turkish President.
  • Saudi Arabia normalized relations with Iran, aiming to end nearly 45 years of hostility and geo-religious rivalry.
  • Saudi Arabia stabilized ties with the United States.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 37, has adroitly chalked out a middle path to take the Arab world’s leadership, currently in a vacuum. Egypt, the usual pretender for Arab leadership, is in a precarious economic state as the Kingdom has curtailed its assistance, demanding greater financial accountability. Syria and Iraq are still battling their internal demons and Iranian interference.

Riyadh’s advantage

In this ongoing quest for Arab supremacy, Saudi Arabia’s rising Influence is due to its economic heft: in 2022, its GDP grew by 8.7% to reach $1,108 billion, more than twice as large as the second-placed United Arab Emirates (UAE). Already the world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi oil income grew by 51% to reach a record $228 billion, giving it a sway over both the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and OPEC+, much to the West’s chagrin.

With the global oil market facing high volatility, only Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, has adequate spare capacity. As the global economic turmoil raises the costs of post-crisis regional reconstruction, Riyadh is emerging as the first go-to destination.

India’s stakes

India has well-known high stakes in the Arab world, particularly in the neighbouring West Asian region. We, therefore, need to acknowledge the importance of this incipient geo-political shift, watch the developments very carefully, realign our strategy accordingly and vigorously pursue our national interests. Although we enjoy cordial and substantive ties with Saudi Arabia, these are still below the potential and need periodic upgradation. To this end, we could consider several bilateral initiatives:

  • Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should be re-invited for the India visit postponed last year; his likely presence at the forthcoming G-20 Summit in New Delhi can be leveraged bilaterally for this purpose.
  • Separately, we should synergise the bilateral Strategic Partnership Council at various levels, leverage the potential for energy complementarity, work together more effectively to secure the region, enter a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, suggest India-Saudi partnership for building socio-economic infrastructure, both bilaterally and regionally, and raise our participation in various projects under the Kingdom’s ambitious “Vision 2030”.

India needs to realign its strategy with Saudi Arabia’s rising Influence as the main arbiter of the Arab world’s agenda. India can strengthen its bilateral ties with Saudi Arabia by working together on issues of mutual interest.

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