KP NayarFew of India’s foreign relations have as much at stake as those with Saudi Arabia, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi just visited. Yet, few of New Delhi’s external relationships have been treated as cavalierly within India at every level as those with the Saudi kingdom. Imagine this: when Manmohan Singh was preparing to visit Saudi Arabia as PM in February 2010, he asked to see a copy of the joint communiqué that was issued in Riyadh in April 1982 at the end of Indira Gandhi’s visit to the kingdom. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) could not produce that document. South Block, the seat of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and MEA, then contacted the Indian Embassy in Riyadh. Believe it or not, the Mission did not have a single copy of this landmark communiqué. Singh has been blessed with a photographic memory, so he proceeded to tell a meeting convened to discuss the VVIP visit what exactly was in the written document that listed the outcome of Indira Gandhi’s historic trip to Saudi Arabia. Barring some intrepid Arabists in the MEA, no one who was present at that meeting at 7, Race Course Road – as the PM’s residential complex was then known – had any clue. Singh remembered the contents of the joint communiqué because he had pored over it obsessively when he was making plans for another landmark visit: his trip to Saudi Arabia as Finance Minister in 1994. That visit was memorable for two reasons. One, a pronounced lack of enthusiasm for the liberaliser Finance Minister’s Saudi initiative within India’s babudom. Two, boundless enthusiasm from Singh himself in favour of the push for an opening with the kingdom. Fast-forward to March 30, 2015. Word came from Riyadh that Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, who had been King of Saudi Arabia for only two months, wanted to speak to Modi on the phone. After hurried bandobast, marathon drafting of talking points and other preparations, the King was finally on the line with the PM at 9:30 pm, somewhat unusual an hour for a phone conversation between two leaders of countries more or less in the same time zone. Salman did not waste time on long pleasantries that are a hallmark of Arab leaders of his generation. He came straight to the point. What did Modi think of the ‘Salman Doctrine’, as the new King’s world view was being described soon after his accession to the throne? Was India prepared to go along with this doctrine, which envisaged a dilution of America’s role in the security of the Gulf region. This would, of course, require a bold initiative by India to cement security cooperation with Saudi Arabia, the King hinted. According to this doctrine, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states will primarily be in charge of their protection, although it did not mean the US will be peremptorily cut off from the Gulf defence framework. Washington will continue to provide vital security for the oil lanes through the Gulf and the kingdom’s oilfields and offshore platforms. The cavalier attitude in New Delhi’s corridors of power towards ties with Saudi Arabia was once again in evidence that night. The PMO had not prepared Modi for any discussion on the doctrine, although strategic thinkers all over the world were dissecting it at that time. So the PM skillfully diverted the conversation with the King to another issue: Saudi help for the evacuation of 4,000 Indians caught up in the civil war in Yemen. S Jaishankar had only just become India’s Foreign Secretary – six days after Salman became King. In any case, Jaishankar has had no experience in the Gulf. But at this point he realised both the opportunities offered by Saudi Arabia and the institutional and psychological handicaps within the Indian system in tapping those opportunities. The joint communiqué of 1982 was soon found. One whole year of preparations began for Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia, which took place in April 2016. Saudi Arabia was still in the throes of leadership changes: the kingdom saw three men assume the office of Crown Prince in quick succession. Eventually, when India proactively invited the last of the three, incumbent Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, popularly known as MbS, there were doubts in some quarters of the Indian establishment about the wisdom of such an invitation. When Modi set aside conventions and protocol in a special gesture of going to the Delhi airport to receive the Crown Prince, eyebrows were raised in many circles in India which provide inputs to policy-making. But Modi and Jaishankar have persevered on their course in building a new relationship with the Al-Saud royal family.
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