Over the past 15 years, the India-Saudi Arabia relationship has deepened significantly, especially on economic issues. However, it is with regard to counter-terrorism co-operation that their bilateral relations have witnessed the most remarkable changes.
A meeting of minds on the question of terrorism was evident during the recent visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Riyadh. India and Saudi Arabia agreed to enhance cooperation in counter-terrorism operations, sharing of intelligence related to money laundering and terrorism financing, and in cyber security, including prevention of the use of cyberspace for terrorism, radicalization and disturbing social harmony.
But more importantly, a joint statement issued at the end of Modi’s visit “called on all states to reject the use of terrorism against other countries; dismantle terrorism infrastructures where they happen to exist and to cut off any kind of support and financing to the terrorists operating and perpetrating terrorism from their territories against other states; and bring perpetrators of acts of terrorism to justice.”
It was widely interpreted in India as an oblique reference to Pakistan and another sign of Saudi Arabia’s slow shift away from its decades-old policy of strongly supporting Pakistan’s backing of anti-India terrorist and religious extremist groups. Only hours before Modi landed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia joined hands with the United States to impose sanctions on individuals linked to the Lashkar-e-Toiba, a Pakistan-based and backed anti-India terrorist group.
Although India has had strong economic ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – oil and remittances of Indian workers there are a major bond in ties with these countries – cooperation on the question of tackling terrorism especially that emanating from Pakistan was not forthcoming for a long time. These countries were also highly critical of India and supported Pakistan’s position on the Kashmir dispute.
Several terrorists and underworld dons wanted for attacks and other crimes in India were given shelter in countries like the United Arab Emirates, for instance. From there, fugitives would be allowed to slip out for sanctuary in Pakistan.
The reluctance of GCC countries to help India’s deal with terrorism was laid bare again during the hijack of Indian Airlines Flight 314 to Kandahar in December 1999. When the flight landed for fueling at Dubai airport, the Dubai government helped get women and children off the plane. However, it was reluctant to intervene to prevent the hijacked flight from flying onward to Kandahar although there were commandos at hand.
Thus on questions related to terrorism, the GCC countries, including Saudi Arabia, backed Pakistan almost reflexively. It is only after 9/11 that West Asian countries have begun to slowly and quietly support India’s fight against terrorism, at least in their rhetoric.
Their own problems with terrorism and India’s attraction as a trade and investment partner are likely to have prompted the shift. During the visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the Saudi kingdom in 2010, the two countries issued the Riyadh Declaration. Among other things, it pledged co-operation in counter-terrorism, and against money laundering, narcotics and arms and human trafficking. An extradition treaty was signed later that year.
Initially, Saudis began shifting out criminals. In 2012, the Saudis deported Saiyad Zaibuddin Ansari, aka Abu Jundal aka Abu Hamza, who was wanted in India for several major terrorist attacks, including the Mumbai attacks in 2008. A few months later, the Saudis deported Fasih Ahmed, an Indian Mujahideen operative wanted in India for his role in the 2010 attacks in Bengaluru and Delhi.
Many in India see the recent joint India-Saudi chiding of Pakistan, albeit without naming it, for its support to terrorism directed against other countries as another step in Saudi Arabia’s slowly shifting position on anti-India terrorism.
However, it is too early for India to celebrate or even interpret this as a sign of Riyadh’s fraying ties with Pakistan. While it is true that the Saudi-Pakistani relationship is under some strain in recent months on account of Pakistan refusing to join the Saudi-led military coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen and its warming up to Iran, reading the growing India-Saudi co-operation on terrorism as a tilt in favor of India is excessive.
Even as Indian officials were celebrating the “indirect reference to Pakistan” in the joint statement, the Saudi counterparts said it was aimed at “terrorism emanating out of Iran.”
Additionally, just days after the Modi visit to Riyadh, the Organization of Islamic Countries expressed support for the right of Kashmiris to self-determination and also clarified that their freedom struggle cannot be equated with terrorism.
There may be a subtle shift in Saudi Arabia’s position on anti-India terrorism emanating from Pakistan. However, Riyadh and Delhi do not seem to have a shared definition of what constitutes terrorism. What is more, it is unwilling to hold hands in public with India in opposing Pakistan’s sponsoring of terrorism.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org