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Saudi Shocks Paks With Pro-India Turn

In steps that point to Saudi Arabia’s concerns about Pakistan’s unsustainable national course, its fears of Iran and its renewed interest in its security relationship with the United States, the Washington Post reports that Saudi Arabia is stepping up its cooperation with Indian authorities on the sensitive question of Pakistani or Indian nationals suspected of terror activities and hiding in Saudi Arabia — in some cases people who are traveling on false documents apparently provided by people with access to the resources of the Pakistani state.

The highest profile case is that of Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari, an Indian citizen implicated in the Mumbai attacks. Known as Abu Jundal, he is an Indian citizen whose voice was allegedly heard on phone calls relaying instructions during the Mumbai terror incident. He was in Saudi Arabia on a Pakistani passport, and his handover to the Indians could not be more embarrassing for the Paks. Fasih Mehmood, another alleged Indian terrorist living in Saudi Arabia with Pakistani papers has also been arrested; he may soon follow Abu Jundal back home for interrogation and trial.

The Saudis are doing India some other favors as well, reports the Post. They want India’s help in putting pressure on Iran, and are helping India replace any oil lost as a result of declining purchases from what Saudi thinks of as the hated Persian heretics. There is even talk of Saudi good offices being used to help India expand its commercial networks in the Arab world. Historically, the Indian subcontinent had close economic links with the Arabs, and a revival of those connections would help India’s economy and partially offset China’s rising profile.

The Saudis are pretty good at foreign policy, and this shift seems to reflect several calculations.

  1. The Saudis are really, really worried about Iran. Helping steer India away from reflexive “non-aligned” third world opposition to western power projection in the region helps clear the path for what many Saudis deeply hope will be an effective western military strike that puts Iran in its place.
  2. The Saudis don’t like radical terrorism. Worries about Al-Qaeda at home and in neighboring Yemen have killed any illusions some Saudis may have had about terror groups. The Saudi state is theologically hardline but geopolitically moderate. It worries about Pakistan’s connections with terror groups and would like Pakistan to distance itself from groups whose violence endangers the Saudis at home.
  3. The fears of terrorism, Iran and the Arab Spring have led the Saudis to put new importance on their relationship with the US. From the Saudi point of view, with Europe weak and China very far away, the US is the only possible ally that can help the Saudis with the problems that keep them up at night. Helping India with terrorism and to pull it away from Iran pleases Washington but also strengthens the configuration of forces that the Saudi authorities think are best placed to protect their state and their regime.

But it’s as important to understand what this isn’t as to see what it is. The Saudis are not turning their backs on Pakistan completely. Ties between the two countries are extremely deep. These two Sunni Islamic states that were aligned with Washington during the Cold War and that cooperated against the Soviets in Afghanistan have a lot of history together. Many observers believe that the Saudis provided financial support and other assistance in Pakistan’s nuclear program, and there are many indications that a range of prominent Pakistani politicians nurture close links with the Saudis, links from which they derive substantial benefits of various kinds. This isn’t going anywhere, but we can expect the Saudis to use their influence to try to cool Pakistan’s ardor for using radical groups as instruments of policy.

Second, this has nothing to do with liberalism, religious moderation or democracy. A diplomatic opening to secular, democratic India doesn’t mean that women are going to get permission to drive cars in Riyadh. If anything, it may mean the opposite. When Saudi leaders take a controversial foreign policy decision that offends pious clerics at home, they often balance this by making concessions to the clerics over social policy. There is a long history in Islamic political practice of giving the ruler a free hand in foreign affairs as long as the government supports Islamic principles and practice at home; the Saudi state is pretty careful to honor its end of the bargain.

Abu Jundal’s voice was allegedly heard giving instructions to the Mumbai attackers on a phone call from Pakistan. Pakistani authorities are not at all happy that his next public remarks will be made in a courtroom in India.

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  • Luke Lea

    “stepping up its cooperation with Indian authorities on the sensitive question of Pakistani or Indian nationals suspected of terror activities and hiding in Saudi Arabia”

    Sounds like no longer anti rather than pro.

  • Kris

    “false documents apparently provided by people with access to the resources of the Pakistani state.”

    Any commenters interested in a career at Foggy Bottom, read and learn.

  • alex scipio

    A) Saudi Arabia offered the Israelis an air corridor for roundtrip (bomber) flights Israel-Iran-Israel over a year ago.

    B) Sunni Arabs HATE Shia Persians more than anyone else on the planet, with the possible exception of the Palestinians.

    C) per this report from Dr Meade, the Saudis have inked a pact with India because of Saudi fear of terrorism and extremists funded by Iran.

    D) Either the US or Israel needs to give the Saudis ONE nuke. One. And the problems with Tehran will be over, dealt with by the Saudis.

  • asdf

    Indians are not going to be using force against Iran– either in a coalition or alone. They’re not a permanent security council member, so they don’t need that vote, either. At best, they’re a powerful regional voice and rising economic power.

    So what else is going on? Keep in mind, Israel and India have been developing ties for the past few years as well, especially with questions from both countries about the US’s reliability.

    So a Saudi approach to India might also serve as a riposte against Israel breaking its near-universal isolation, in addition to any vague and generic diplomatic support they get against Iran. That’s not as contradictory as you’d think. Israel’s a military power but a diplomatic pariah. If anything, their isolation makes them more likely to run military risks to harm Iran, because they have few alternatives. So keeping Israel isolated from potential allies serves both Saudi Arabia’s realist and idealist goals.

    A best-case scenario from Saudi Arabia’s point of view is for Israel to do the heavy lifting, suffer the diplomatic penalties, and run all the risks of retaliation to mitigate the threat of Iran. For one enemy to greatly weaken itself destroying another enemy? That’s well worth annoying pakistan over.

  • Jim

    Alex’s point B is spot on. My experience with Sunni Arabs – admittedly limited – is that they view the West and the Jews as outside enemies, but the Shia are traitors and backstabbers to Islam. The Saudis I have spoken with say the Shia are the biggest impediment to Islam controlling the world because Allah will not raise up the faithful as long as they allow the heretics to exist. Shiite practice is a direct affront to Allah and a stain on every true (Sunni) muslim.

    Its almost humorous that at the end of a diatribe against Shiites, they always add something about not liking the Jews either. Kind of a throw away line they have been drilled to add someplace during every discussion.

  • Kris

    Jim@5: “they always add something about not liking the Jews either”

    Delenda est Carthago.

  • teapartydoc

    I though it was: Carthago delenda est.

  • M. Simon

    Let us not forget that Israel is a rising oil power in the ME and Iran is a falling oil power. Not just from sanctions but from long term neglect.

    In 10 years Iran as an economic power will be kaput. For them it is act now or else. There is also demographics. Iran is not having children. What that says in psychological terms is that the country has already lost hope.

    People without hope often do desperate things.

  • Techno Dan

    “The Saudis don’t like radical terrorism”.
    I’ll believe that when they stop funding madrassas and jihadist mosques.

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