Behind the Saudi tilt towards India

Three militants handed over to India in recent days.

WASHINGTON: Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia extradited one of India’s most wanted terror suspects, Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari, back to India. A purported member of the notorious Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorist outfit, Ansari was accused of direct involvement in the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks that killed over 160 people. Intelligence officials widely believe that Ansari was present inside the Pakistan-based control room coordinating the three-day long massacre, and that it was his chilling voice that could be heard over intercepted cell phone conversations instructing the attackers to kill hostages.

The decision to hand over Ansari came as a surprise to many in India. In a script that had become all too familiar to New Delhi, terror suspects like Ansari would flee to Pakistan, assume new identities, obtain Pakistani passports, and travel safely to Saudi Arabia. Riyadh’s historically close ties to Islamabad as well as its own sponsorship of extremist Wahabism in the region via Pakistan ensured that these individuals would remain beyond the reach of Indian authorities where they were free to plan new attacks against the Indian state.

But Ansari’s extradition to India signals a shift in Saudi policy and a desire to collaborate with New Delhi towards cracking down on terrorism.  In fact, since then, officials in the desert monarchy have extradited two more high-value terror suspects sought by New Delhi, with Indian authorities optimistic that Saudi Arabia will hand over additional militants to India over the coming months.

What explains this newfound Saudi tilt towards India?  Several factors appear to be influencing Riyadh’s decision-making calculus, all of which carry significant geopolitical implications for those countries involved.

First, Saudi Arabia’s policy shift appears to reflect Riyadh’s growing concerns over Pakistan’s ongoing relationships with militant groups like LeT, and Islamabad’s inability to control them.   Although the Kingdom has long employed Pakistan as its vehicle to export extremist Wahabist ideology, many observers view its outreach to New Delhi as evidence that even Pakistan’s closest allies are growing increasingly skittish about its continued tolerance for these terror outfits.  With Pakistan itself now a frequent target of the same groups it helped nurture and continues to support, Saudi officials likely regard closer ties with India as a way to moderate Islamabad’s dangerous behavior in this arena.

Second, burgeoning counterterrorism cooperation with India is occurring against a backdrop of rapidly improving Saudi-Indian ties.  Bilateral relations between the two states have been historically strained, but New Delhi and Riyadh have sought to change this over the past few years.  In addition to announcing their own strategic partnership in 2010, and landmark visits by King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to one another’s countries, the two states signed an extradition treaty in 2010, establishing the basis for Ansari’s unprecedented return to Indian authorities.

Third, Riyadh likely sees deeper engagement with New Delhi as a way to counter Iran’s influence in the Middle East and South Asia while simultaneously deepening commercial ties with India. As Saudi Arabia’s major power rival, Iran has traditionally enjoyed robust, multi-dimensional ties with India, with the two countries often citing their “civilization ties.” Over the past year, however, New Delhi has been slowly distancing itself from Tehran as tensions over Iran’s disputed nuclear program continue to steadily rise.  While India is unlikely to ever join Riyadh in any explicit anti-Iran balancing, Saudi Arabia has replaced Tehran as New Delhi’s top oil supplier, blunting some of the influence the theocratic regime has long enjoyed in this realm.

A combination of these factors appears to have resulted in Riyadh’s decision to change course and begin evicting terror suspects to India over Pakistan’s fierce objections. The timing of Riyadh’s outreach to India is hardly coincidental, and is consistent with slight but perceptible geopolitical changes occurring in these regions.

Additionally, Riyadh’s recent slate of extraditions also represents a triumph for growing US-India counterterrorism cooperation. The period following the brazen November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks has witnessed the United States and India dramatically expand their collaboration in this arena. In this instance, Americans tracked Ansari from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia and notified New Delhi and Riyadh of his whereabouts. Washington then leveraged its close relationship with the kingdom to pressure the Saudi government to turn Ansari over to India despite intense lobbying from Pakistan to reclaim custody. Indian officials credit this pressure from Washington as playing a central role in securing his extradition and overcoming Saudi reluctance to expel other terror suspects as well.

While Saudi Arabia’s nascent counterterrorism cooperation with New Delhi is undoubtedly an important development, it is far from absolute. Riyadh continues to hold several other militants sought by India in its custody but has yet to extradite them. Its decision to hand over Ansari came only after Indian officials provided Riyadh with DNA evidence confirming his identity and Indian origin in conjunction with American pressure. Just this past month, Saudi officials released a terror suspect India had asked Riyadh to detain, citing insufficient evidence to justify holding him.

In fact, Saudi Arabia has limited its extraditions exclusively to Indian militants, so far refusing to hand over any Pakistani suspects. This distinction is revealing, suggesting that while Saudi Arabia may be seeking to disassociate from Pakistan and the terror outfits it supports to some degree, it has yet to completely abandon them. Whether Saudi Arabia is ultimately willing to do so will be the true barometer of whether Riyadh’s recent cooperation with New Delhi heralds an emerging trend or merely constitutes a temporary phenomenon.

Either way, Riyadh’s extradition of Indian terror suspects back to India marks a turning point for counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries. Although Saudi Arabia will not abandon its close and longstanding ties with Islamabad anytime soon, Pakistan should be on notice that its enduring relationship with terrorist organizations has made even its staunchest allies uncomfortable. (Global India Newswire)

(Ronak D. Desai is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He writes regularly on topics related to South Asia and the Middle East.)

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