Spotlight West Asia

Saudi Arabia-US Estrangement: Implications for the Indian Subcontinent

03 Mar, 2014    ·   4318

Amb Ranjit Gupta comments on the deepening of Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations

Ranjit Gupta
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow

The Arab Spring strongly compounded Saudi Arabia’s progressively increasing disillusionment with the US when, to its utter consternation and deep anger, the US failed to prevent the overthrow of Mubarak, a faithful ally for more than three decades. US criticism of Gen Al Sissi’s overthrowing of the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Morsy and cutting off economic and military assistance added fuel to the fire.

The West’s holding back of arms supplies to rebels fighting against the Assad regime in Syria and the US decision not to take military action against it for breaching a publicly announced red-line, the use of chemical weapons, added to Saudi Arabia’s growing anger. After these disappointments, the sudden opening of negotiations on the nuclear issue with Iran, the rapidity with which an interim agreement was reached and the continuing pursuit of a thaw in relations with Iran represent in Saudi eyes a willful disregard of its security concerns and sensitivities. Saudi Arabia has maintained that no agreement will constrain the nuclear programme and Iran would still be able to make the bomb very quickly should it finally decide to do so.

From 2009, Saudi Arabia started sending signals from the King downwards and has more than once since then stated publicly that in the event Iran acquires the capability to make nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will do so also.

Pakistan-Iran relations have been witnessing a serious downturn in the past few months – Iran has threatened military intervention to secure the release of its security personnel and in the context of the continuing killing of Shias; Iran has cancelled the much flaunted gas pipeline, etc. A flurry of exchange of visits between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are coincidentally taking place during this downturn. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud’s sudden visit to Pakistan in January 2014 followed very soon thereafter by the new Pakistani Army Chief’s visit to Saudi Arabia and now Prince Salman choosing Pakistan as the first country to visit after becoming Crown Prince and Defence Minister has prompted a lot of speculative commentary in the Western strategic community. Those who closely follow Saudi Arabia’s relations with South Asia believe that the Saudi Arabia-funded Pakistani nuclear programme and payback time may be approaching. Saudi Defence Minister Prince Sultan was given privileged and complete access to Pakistani nuclear installations in 1999 (and again in 2002) and soon thereafter Dr AQ Khan visited Saudi Arabia. US experts such as Bruce Reidel and Gary Saymore, who should know, say that a secret and long-standing agreement exists that Pakistan would provide the Kingdom with nuclear technology and weapons should Saudi Arabia feel threatened by a third party nuclear programme. This would inevitably invite strong reactions from the US and Iran and would also almost surely evoke strong opposition from China which would not want to jeopardise its overarching relationship with the US for an issue far removed from its core national interests. Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have strongly denied any such intention and also reports that Pakistan will, at Saudi request, be supplying sophisticated weapons to rebels in Syria – this would greatly anger Iran but will hardly make a difference in Syria. However, both these contingencies are unlikely to happen. 

It is far more likely that these visits are in the context of the domestic situation in Saudi Arabia. These are delicate and sensitive times in Saudi Arabia – Crown Prince Sultan and Crown Prince Nayef passed away in quick succession in October 2011 and June 2012 respectively; the King is in his mid-nineties and his health is fragile; Crown Prince Salman’s health is not particularly robust; Saudi Arabia is approaching uncharted territory in relation to the succession to the throne. Massive unemployment, the popular appeal of the Arab Spring, Sunni Islamic extremism, Shia restiveness particularly in the oil-rich eastern provinces, are factors that present serious putative security concerns. Given the one-of-its-kind rather unique Saudi-Pakistan relationship, assertively Sunni Pakistan may be the perfect security partner to help meet internal threats. Western security partners cannot be used while Arabs will always be more problematic and risky. 

Crown Prince Salman also paid a highly satisfying three-day visit to India during which an MoU on defence cooperation was amongst agreements signed which build upon the relationship spelt out in the Delhi Declaration of 2006 and the Riyadh Declaration of 2010, both landmark, path-breaking documents signed personally by King Abdullah with the Indian Prime Minister. These established a wide-ranging strategic partnership. An Indian defence minister had paid a first-ever visit to Saudi Arabia in 2012. In contrast to Pakistan, the interaction with India is in the context of tentative beginnings of a potential reorientation of Saudi foreign policy to move away from complete and total dependence on the US. Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the Saudi Foreign Minister, had given a thought provoking speech in Manama, Bahrain, on 5 December 2004. The subject was ‘Towards a New Framework for Regional Security’. He said, inter alia, that "the international component of the suggested Gulf security framework should engage positively the emerging Asian powers as well, especially China and India." Since then, this theme is increasingly reiterated by leading Saudi personalities.