Even as India refuses to join the U.S.-led sanctions regime on Iran, New Delhi is simultaneously cementing ties with Tehran’s long-standing rival, Saudi Arabia. Last month saw the first-ever visit by an Indian defense minister to the kingdom in a move that signals as much New Delhi’s willingness to emerge as a net provider of security to Saudi Arabia as Riyadh’s desire to look beyond Pakistan for its security needs. At a deeper level, the visit underscored the fact that the Gulf Cooperation Council -- of which Saudi Arabia is the largest constituent -- and India now view each other as indispensable enough not to let the absence of a formal security agreement get in the way of building broad-spectrum ties.
India’s engagement with Saudi Arabia follows the classic paradigm of economic ties building up to a critical mass that subsequently catalyzes a defense dialogue. Saudi Arabia is India’s biggest supplier of oil -- Iran comes in at second place -- and hosts as many as 3 million Indian expatriates on its soil. Ever since King Abdullah’s visit to Delhi in 2006 and his inauguration of a “look east” policy for Saudi Arabia, bilateral trade has been on the rise, touching $26 billion this year. For New Delhi, Saudi Arabia has now come to represent a key focal point at one end of the Indian Ocean, where India sees itself as a net provider of security intended to keep energy and other trade flows from being interrupted.
Importantly, Saudi Arabia now seems to acknoweldge India’s regional security role, as evidenced by the kingdom’s acceptance of Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony’s proposal to carry out hydrographic surveys off the Saudi coastline. Such surveys, which facilitate the operation of submarines, had until now been outsourced only to the United States. India’s involvement is indicative of a level of trust between the Indian and Saudi security establishments that has blossomed even in the absence of a specific agreement.