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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.