Saudi Arabia’s New Strategic Game in South Asia

Motivated by old and new security anxieties, and above all, by its sectarian competition with Iran, Saudi Arabia is playing a new game in South Asia. In a dramatic shift from prior decades, warming ties with India have already served Riyadh well by steering New Delhi away from a closer partnership with Tehran. Separately, reenergized links with Pakistan offer Riyadh even more potent ammunition to counter Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions.

Although Western analysts tend to view Saudi policies through a Middle Eastern lens, Riyadh’s South Asia play is a high-stakes gambit with direct consequences for Iranian nuclear developments, the war in Syria, Pakistan’s stability and Indo-Pakistani peace. Fortunately, if Washington is clever and a little lucky, many of Riyadh’s moves with Islamabad and New Delhi can be turned to the U.S. advantage.

Saudi Anxieties, Old and New

Iran’s nuclear ambitions exacerbate Saudi fears, and the latest spate of U.S.-led multilateral negotiations with Tehran has done little to inspire confidence in Riyadh. Like the Israelis and other critics of the process, the Saudis worry that Iran is using talks to slip free from crippling international sanctions in ways that will allow Tehran to expand its regional influence without permanently conceding its nuclear weapons or ballistic-missile ambitions. Unlike the Israelis, the Saudis do not yet have their own nuclear arsenal to deter Iran. But prominent Saudis, such as former intelligence chief Prince Turki Al Faisal, have declared that Riyadh would have no choice but to go nuclear if Iran ever actually crossed that threshold.

Recent U.S. and Saudi differences over the Arab Spring and Iranian nuclear negotiations exist against a larger backdrop: the gradual deterioration in Riyadh’s relationship with Washington. Throughout the Cold War, that relationship was justified by Washington’s commitment to defending the world’s preeminent energy producer from Soviet conquest. In the post–Cold War period, Washington remained concerned about secure access to Gulf energy supplies, but U.S. wars in Iraq ultimately contributed to the deterioration in bilateral ties with Riyadh, even though the Saudis had no love for Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. And, of course, the biggest shock to the U.S.-Saudi relationship came on 9/11, given the Saudi origins of fifteen of the nineteen Al Qaeda hijackers.

Looking ahead, there are additional reasons to anticipate that Saudi-U.S. ties will ebb. Above all, whereas U.S. energy imports from Saudi Arabia used to be taken for granted, the U.S.-led technological revolution in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and improvements in energy efficiencies are turning the United States into a net energy exporter. Energy sales will no longer offer as significant commercial ballast to the U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship as they once did.

To be sure, Washington and Riyadh will continue to share important interests. On balance, however, the Saudis see the writing on the wall, and they have been smart to seek new ways to adapt to an increasingly difficult strategic environment. Riyadh has begun to diversify its commercial and strategic relationships and consider its security in an Asia-centric, rather than U.S.-centric, context. Evidence of these shifts is already apparent in the Saudi strategy for South Asia.

A New Game with New Delhi

In early 2012, Saudi authorities arrested Sayeed Zabiudeen Ansari (alias Abu Jundal), a Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operative accused of playing a central role in planning and executing the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, India. After months of behind-the-scenes diplomatic wrangling between Islamabad, Riyadh, New Delhi, and Washington, Ansari was deported to India, where he was publicly re-arrested and interrogated extensively. Today he sits in solitary confinement in Mumbai’s central jail, and Indian sources claim that he has shed significant light on the Mumbai operation, including its links with members of the Pakistani intelligence service, or ISI.

Riyadh’s decision to send Ansari to India was remarkable. Ansari had traveled to Saudi Arabia on a Pakistani passport and his interrogation was almost certain to implicate the ISI—and by extension, provide strong evidence on the question of the Pakistani state’s support to terrorists. Pakistani officials undoubtedly would have preferred that Ansari be returned to their custody, and in the past, the intimate ties between Saudi and Pakistani intelligence services would have trumped Indian requests. In this case, however, Indian authorities prevailed. It helped, of course, that the facts were in New Delhi’s favor: Ansari was actually an Indian whose DNA matched with that of his Indian father. Pressure from U.S. intelligence officials and growing Saudi concerns about the genuine threat posed by groups like LeT may have sealed the deal.

Yet the Ansari case was also part of a wider trend in the Saudi-Indian relationship dating back to the end of the Cold War. For decades, India’s tilt toward Moscow and anemic economy had hindered the full flowering of ties between New Delhi and Riyadh. The new post–Cold War order paved the way for Riyadh to reimagine India’s potential as a growing energy consumer, a powerful regional actor, and even a strategic partner.

Full article: Saudi Arabia’s New Strategic Game in South Asia (The National Interest)

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