Saudi Arabia’s New Strategic Game in South Asia

"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."

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

Throughout its modern history, the insular and fabulously wealthy Saudi monarchy has grappled with domestic and regional security anxieties despite extraordinary military expenditures. At home, the state’s official sponsorship of the austere Salafi school of Sunni Islam has created particular problems with the country’s Shia minority on the one hand, and with radical and violent Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda, on the other. At the same time, the tradition-bound, dynastic politics of the Al Saud family poses an obstacle to the sort of reform that would encourage broad-based economic growth and political participation.

Given these domestic political challenges, the events of the 2011 “Arab Spring” raised new Saudi fears about internal unrest and regional strife. Saudi leaders have tended to interpret recent political upheavals in the context of a broader sectarian and strategic competition with Iran. That rivalry for leadership within the Muslim world has driven Saudi defense and foreign policy for decades and shows no serious sign of abating.

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.

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