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Saturday January 28, 11:45 AM

Arabian nights in Delhi

By Sreeram Chaulia

The dynamic needs of statecraft and the changing texture of international politics generate the strangest of bedfellows. The world has been amazed by the coming together of diametrically opposed and diehard adversaries when circumstances warranted it. Images of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Washington in September 1993 or of British Prime Minister Tony Blair doing the same with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli in March 2004 are living proofs of the old aphorism that diplomacy is the art of the possible.

Closer to home, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee having a cheerful tête-à-tête with Maulana Fazlur Rehman, chief of Pakistan's fundamentalist nerve-centre, Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Islam, in Delhi in July 2003 was another bizarre deed attesting to the pragmatism that governs the conduct of foreign policy. The just concluded historic trip to India of the Saudi Arabian ruler, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's protocol-defying personal reception at Delhi airport, and the visiting dignitary being honoured as chief guest for the Republic Day parade fall within a similar category of events - unimaginable absurdities until they were turned into reality.

The economic balance sheet between India and Saudi Arabia conveys a normal, even healthy, relationship. The latter is India's biggest supplier of crude, accounting for almost a quarter of its fuel imports, and host to 1.5 million Indian migrant workers who send back remittances worth an estimated $4 billion per annum. Indian petrochemical, pharmaceutical, IT and telecom companies are licensed operators in the desert kingdom, generating annual business worth $360 million.

The Bilateral Investment Promotion Agreement and the Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement that were signed by the two sides in Delhi carry forward the expansive vision of the February 2004 'Mumbai Declaration' between leading businessmen of India and of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Saudi Arabia is the bellwether. Nearly identical economic pacts were signed by Abdullah's entourage in China a few days ago, bold moves to ensure that GCC member states do not slip out of Saudi hands and strike out bilateral bargains independently.

Abdullah's goal of ensuring complete mastery and shepherding authority over the slippery GCC is being well served through this new 'Look East' foreign economic policy.

The political balance sheet between India and Saudi Arabia is what makes the recent state visit befuddling. For decades the repressive House of Saud has been buying loyalty at home by diverting terrorism towards external targets and financing the spread of rabid Wahhabi ideology of holy war. Pick a place on the geographical map of modern jehad - Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia, Tajikistan, the Philippines, Kosovo, Algeria, Sudan, Thailand, Indonesia or Bangladesh - and a Saudi connection will automatically surface. Worldwide, Saudi-financed Islamic institutions and schools have come under the scanner for spreading religious hatred and destabilising multicultural states.

India has been at the receiving end of Saudi governmental and citizen initiatives to bankroll terrorist outfits active in Kashmir. In December 2005, the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), where Saudi Arabia is a principal player, declared solidarity with Pakistan on Kashmir for the umpteenth time. King Abdullah did say on his Delhi trip that he favours India getting observer status at the OIC, but the catch was that the nomination be put forward by Pakistan! The unwavering military and economic support Saudis have given to Pakistan soured ties for a long time between Riyadh and Delhi. It is an open secret that the Saudis funded the Pakistani nuclear programme.

In the light of deep-rooted evangelistic foreign policy orientations of the custodians of Makkah and Madinah, the Agreement on Combating Terrorism and Crime inked in Delhi between Saudi and Indian officials appears fanciful and empty. It does give Riyadh brownie points with the US as an indicator of sincerity in cleaning up its act as the fountainhead of global terror. The 'Delhi Declaration' obviously has some mutually beneficial features in the economic realm, but warrants healthy wariness on the counter-terrorism front.

A behind-the-scenes American role in propelling the Saudi-Indian Strategic Energy Pact cannot be ruled out because of the Iran connection. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has often reiterated that Washington wants to help India explore 'alternative sources of energy' so that the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline is stymied and Tehran is completely cornered into conceding on its nuclear programme. The language of the Energy Pact - 'reliable, stable and increased volume of crude oil supplies through evergreen long-term contracts' - offers India an alternative that could have repercussions on the Iran pipeline's future. The economist in Manmohan Singh's shoes has already set the cat among the pigeons by worrying aloud that the Iran pipeline is fraught with risks and difficult to find insurers.

Saudi Arabia has for long been engaged in a fiercely competitive rivalry with Iran for the post of the Middle East's great power. Riyadh and Tehran wage an all-out battle for influence and power by arming antagonistic terrorist groups and proxy zealots. Frequent Iranian opposition to Saudi oil price setting at the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and recent Iranian gains in Iraq through the 'Shia victory' rankle greatly with King Abdullah.

The race for who corrals the ravenous energy appetites of rapidly industrialising China and India is not merely one between Saudi Arabia, the largest OPEC oil producer, and Iran, the second largest producer but also between America's staunchest ally and most inveterate foe.

(Sreeram Chaulia is a commentator on international affairs. He can be reached at [email protected])

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