S Jaishankar's trip to Kuwait crucial, but New Delhi must not take its eye off renewed Saudi-Pakistan ties

·4-min read

Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar is on a three-day trip to Kuwait. This visit, his first as India's foreign minister, comes just a month after Jaishankar spoke to the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait with a focus on the coronavirus pandemic.

Why is this relevant?

The visit to the oil-rich Kuwait also comes nearly three months after the two countries decided to establish a joint ministerial commission to formulate a framework to strengthen ties in sectors like energy, trade, investment, manpower and labour and information technology.

The personal letter from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah is a nice touch and is a continuation of India's outreach to Gulf countries €" Modi has described the region as India's extended neighbourhood €" during the pandemic.

As per Hindustan Times, officials believe that New Delhi's efforts to reach out to the Gulf countries through the peak of the pandemic when India sent not just medicines, but medical teams to countries in the "extended neighbourhood" had held the country in good stead.

And after all, Kuwait, a major supplier of oil to India, has been a "reliable energy partner" and around a million Indians reside in the country. Besides, the year 2021 marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between India and Kuwait.

Where do Saudi Arabia and Pakistan fit into this?

But through the bonhomie, India would do well to keep one eye firmly on another bilateral partner in West Asia with whom it has enjoyed cordial ties, largely based on its energy requirements: Saudi Arabia (which itself is deepening ties with Kuwait).

Particularly since the Islamic Kingdom seems to be also making efforts to mend previously fraying ties with India's arch-rival Pakistan.

"While the relationship had never faced a serious survival threat, various disagreements in the last few years created an uncomfortable environment between Islamabad and Riyadh," this article in The National Interest noted.

The article outlined multiple reasons for the fence-building including both countries' increasing isolation in the face of a cold shoulder from the new Joe Biden administration in Washington, the Kingdom's concern over Islamabad possibly drifting towards Turkey, and to retain its prestige as the undisputed leader of the Muslim world and, of course, Pakistan's dire need for the deep pockets of the Saudis.

Not to be forgotten is the Kingdom's desire for an increased role in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US and NATO forces, which will only be made possible by Pakistan's involvement.

Should India be alarmed?

India need not be alarmed though. After all, India and Saudi Arabia have seen a slew of high-level political visits in recent years including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, NSA Ajit Doval and General MN Naravane. The Kingdom has also made it clear that Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan are no longer the sticking points they once were.

As per an article in ORF, during the visit of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Modi and the Saudi Crown Prince "condemned in the strongest terms, the recent terrorist attack on Indian security forces on 14 February, 2019, in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir," demonstrating a more nuanced position from Riyadh and support for India.

The "neutral" stand is an important shift in Saudi Arabia's approach towards India in general and Jammu and Kashmir, in particular, the piece noted.

Add to that the Saudi foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud's recent public statement about committing to reducing tension between New Delhi and Islamabad.

"On the Pakistan-India relationship, I really want to commend what has been achieved recently of a calming of tensions and a ceasefire. This is an excellent step in the right direction," the Saudi finance minister said during an interview aired live on state-run Pakistan TV and radio.

Still, India would do well not to take its eye off the ball.

"As an interested party, New Delhi needs to watch the incipient realignment between Islamabad and Riyadh," thisHindustan Times piece noted.

"More substantive economic ties with India have led Riyadh to develop a better, more objective understanding of the Indo-Pak dynamic. Saudi Arabia's current relations with the two South Asian countries are no longer either a zero-sum game or seen through a religious prism. If anything, Pakistan is on the defensive and is not likely to get a Saudi carte blanche vis-Ã -vis India. Yet, it would be unwise for us to take Saudi Arabia for granted."


With inputs from PTI

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