BY SAEED NAQVI
Visits to New Delhi by leaders of Saudi Arabia, Iran in quick succession would seem to suggest something new is happening in West Asia to which Indian attention is required.
Some historic changes have already placed the region on a path of hope: the election of President Hassan Rouhani, his historic telephonic “hullo” with President Barack Obama, positive movement of the Geneva process on Iran’s nuclear programme, etcetera.
Negative propaganda was not sticking on Tehran which, with every passing week, looked more statesmanlike, above the mess in the rest of the Middle East.
Well, the Saudis are on their way to restoring the balance. When Saudi king Abdullah returned from hospital in February 2011 and saw his friends Hosni Mubarak in Cairo and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis toppled, he swore to arrest the so called Arab Spring. The message rang out of Riyadh: “No monarchies or Sheikhdoms will be allowed to fall.” They were not allowed to fall. Libya was a different tragedy and it ended in a mess. But we shall let that pass.
The unholy mess in Syria was dragged on and on by multiple Salafist groups under the supervision of Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan. He turned up in Moscow and told Vladimir Putin that he could ensure incident-free Sochi Winter Olympics if only Moscow would pull back from its support to President Bashar al Assad in Damascus. How would he guarantee that, pray? He said he controlled the extremists in the Caucasus. Putin said we have known for ten years you control the militants. It sounds like a parody on outlandish diplomacy. All of this was actually leaked to the Russian media.
Well, Prince Bandar has been relieved of his duties to arm and fund Syrian rebels. The change holds promise of slow descent of peace on the war torn country. The change also promises a return to smoother relations between Riyadh and Washington. With Bandar’s theatrical diplomacy now in the past, Riyadh can settle down to sketching a comprehensive agenda for the visit next month of President Barack Obama. Bandar is being replaced by Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. The world’s longest serving Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al Faisal too is being asked to go. His slot will be filled by the King’s son, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah.
It is against this elaborate background that the Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud’s visit to New Delhi is being assessed.
Even though, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid’s one day visit to Kandahar had been arranged well in advance, he must have taken into account the themes that his Saudi and Iranian guests will dwell on.
US Deputy Secretary of State, William J Burns has reiterated something that generally causes missed heartbeats in Riyadh. He said “US is likely to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil producer in the next five years or so, and with the prospect of genuine energy independence in the next twenty years or so, it’s also natural for Americans to wonder if we really need to pay so much attention to the Middle East.”
Therefore, these visits provide an opportunity to New Delhi to become part of the mapping process for a new architecture in the region and the Middle East. The Saudis will, in muted terms echo Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s concerns about involvement of India in Afghanistan. This is what the Saudi delegation will have picked up in Islamabad. They would also have been acquainted with Pakistan’s query: “who will foot the bill of about five billion annually for the Afghan Armed Forces?”
What role for the regional players in Afghanistan to enable the US to withdraw by the end of the year? What chances of Indo-Pak movement towards normalcy. Look, there is some movement even on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Will Kashmir remain an eternal question mark?
In Lebanon, Saudis have scaled down their demands and accommodated Hezbullah in the government. An explosive situation with the Shia Huthis in Southern Saudi Arabia bordering Yemen has been defused.
The Syrian situation is at an interesting stage because Bashar al Assad’s presidency comes to an end in 2014 until new elections are held.
The Iranians, New Delhi will find are on the same page. Indeed, some sort of a Tehran-Riyadh crawl towards an entente is not unthinkable. Remember, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani was invited for Haj by King Abdullah. He could not go. Rafsanjani has always maintained that the ruling family in Riyadh are best bet for everybody. The alternative could well mean more power to Salafi groups.
(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)