The world watched and so did India when US President Donald Trump made his first official trip abroad — to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. However, the visit itself — where defense deals worth USD 110 billion were signed — was not the focus of attention as much as was the Arab Islamic American summit in Riyadh, in which 55 Muslim nations, including India’s arch-rival Pakistan, participated. Even before the summit took place, op-eds had appeared in major national publications about the possible implications of the summit for India.
A major concern for India is Pakistan’s involvement in the Saudi-led Islamic military coalition, which has former Pakistan Chief of Staff General Raheel Sharif as its head. After all, India had expended considerable political and diplomatic capital to isolate Pakistan for terror attacks emanating from its territory which target India and Indian interests. Both the alliance and the summit came at a particularly disquieting moment when tensions on the India-Pakistan border had increased as had infiltration of jihadists from Pakistan to Indian Kashmir.
On the other hand, relations between India and the Arab countries forming the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been deepening, evolving from a transactional to a strategic one. At the heart of this transformation was a mutual concern about growing religious radicalism and terrorism in the region and a convergence over the challenges to be overcome in countering this threat.
In New Delhi, there was satisfaction that the GCC was appreciative of India’s concerns regarding cross-border terrorism and, implicit in this, an awareness of Pakistan’s role in the region.
Interestingly, this came at a time when relations between Pakistan and some GCC countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have begun to fray, amidst Pakistan’s reluctance to take sides in the larger Shia-Sunni rivalry currently plaguing the region. In particular, this manifested in Pakistan’s refusal to join the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen.
Therefore, Pakistan playing a dominant role in the “Sunni alliance” or Arab NATO was not something India would be indifferent to, even though it maintained a stoic front.
The other major concern was about relations with Iran from whom India sources more than 11 percent of its oil supplies. Iran is also important to India for connectivity to Central Asia and further to East Europe through the multi-modal International North South Corridor. To that end, India has committed to invest USD 500 million to develop Iran’s Chabahar port.
Hence, India has been doing a delicate balancing act vis-à-vis its relations between Iran and the GCC countries, where around 7 million Indians reside and work. The GCC is India’s largest source of foreign remittances.
However, the nature of the summit itself seemed to allay some of India’s fears. For one, what has widely been touted as a “Muslim NATO” — a primarily Sunni Muslim defence block — already seemed divided — even before the ongoing boycott of Qatar by Saudi-led Arab countries like the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain began, with countries like Iraq and Syria excluded. The Riyadh summit too did not include Syria. The Sunni alliance also seemed more of posturing — if similar preceding groupings like the Arab League or the Organization of Islamic Conference are anything to go by.
A split ensued within the GCC itself with member-states Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, along with Egypt, breaking off all diplomatic relations with fellow member Qatar, accusing it of “supporting terrorism” in the region.
Further, the pronouncement by President Trump at the summit that India was a victim of terrorism gladdened many Indian hearts. The fact that he made this statement at a summit which was convened apparently to combat terrorism and where Pakistan — one of the Muslim countries with great military clout — was present, represented at the highest levels by its Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was laden with symbolism. Trump did not similarly name Pakistan as a victim of terrorism, neither did he make any reference to Pakistan’s contribution in the fight against terrorism.
On the other hand, one of the agreements reached at the summit was the establishment of the Terrorist Targeting Financial Center, which would target terror networks, which include amongst others, the Islamic State (ISIS), Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani network. The last three are groups that have targeted Indian interests at home and abroad and are known to have support and sanctuaries within Pakistan.
Next came news of Pakistan’s perceived humiliation at the summit where Nawaz Sharif was not allowed to speak, although leaders of countries like Indonesia and Malaysia did. The Pakistan press went into a great deal of speculation on what this meant for Pakistan and on the country’s wisdom in joining an alliance that so pointedly seemed to be targeted at Iran — a neighboring country, a great military power in the region, and a country with which Pakistan’s sizeable Shia community has close spiritual and cultural linkages. Pakistan is also currently embroiled in a border spat with Iran and by any parameters it would be foolish for Pakistan to further alienate Iran at a moment when it is facing tensions with its other neighbors — Afghanistan and India.
So wary has Pakistan been of this Sunni alliance and of disturbing the Shia-Sunni balance in the region that it finally decided to refer Pakistan’s membership of it to its parliament — the same parliament that had voted in 2015 to keep Pakistan away from the war in Yemen.
Yet, while all these dynamics were being discussed and debated on, a split ensued within the GCC itself with member-states Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, along with Egypt, sparking a new crisis in the region by breaking off all diplomatic relations and cutting all ties with fellow GCC member Qatar, accusing it of “supporting terrorism” in the region, primarily through its support for groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and for its close ties with Iran. More countries have followed the Saudi action.
Initially defensive, Qatar, whose stance seems to be hardening now, conveyed through its Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani that the boycott threatened the very future of the GCC.
With other Arab and Muslim countries taking up position on this or that side of the divide, it would seem that India has less to worry about an alliance that seems to be falling apart even before it had been formed.
With fault limes erupting within the Sunni bloc itself, it is doubtful if Pakistan’s parliament will allow Pakistan to be part of still more divides. Editorial and opinion pieces in the Pakistani press certainly seem to not be in favor of Pakistan joining the alliance. In which case, Pakistan’s ties with heavyweights like Saudi Arabia, which had been on the mend, may experience further setbacks.
On the other hand, a faltering Arab and Sunni alliance may well become more preoccupied with itself than take on any other rival.
India, which has 300,000 citizens living and working in Qatar alone, is of course carefully monitoring developments in the region and will hope for the storm to blow over sooner than later. But for now, at least, all its major concerns regarding the Sunni alliance seem to have been allayed.