Adding fuel to the South Asian boiling waters Saudi Arabia has quite recently, released a 20 Riyal banknote to commemorate its presidency of organizing the G-20 Summit. What is interesting for the world and irks India, Pakistan and China is that on the world map shown on the banknote Ladakh, Gilgit-Baltistan and Kashmir have been removed from Pakistan and India. The Saudi move has roused angst amongst the three and has serious repercussions if not mended soon. Saudi Arabia opened new vistas of strategic relations with India as it slices a significant chunk away from the Muslim world in favour of Indian position on Kashmir. In view of the US, Israel and UAE understanding and Nagorno-Karabakh alignments India and Saudi Arabia have peddled forth towards a new era of relations where they pose a serious threat to Sino-Pakistan vision of South Asia and OBOR expansion in the Middle-East. The Riyal 20 banknote has some intent behind and the repercussions on their bilateral relations as also on the politics of South Asia and Middle East.
India and Saudi Arabia, the two regional giants have shared historical cultural relations since past but in the post-World War II scenario they developed distances on Kashmir and OIC politics. Kashmir determined the Indo-US, Indo-Pak and Indo-Saudi Arabia relations till the collapse of USSR and continues to influence the strategic shifts in the post-cold war era. Saudi Arabia, till recently, supported Pakistan’s stand on Kashmir. It also provided frequent economic packages to Pakistan to bail it out of critical situations like conflict with India, internal turbulences and jihadi operations. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and India’s proximity with the former also irked it. However, after the economic depression of 2008 Saudi Arabia has changed its policy towards Indian subcontinent as it can’t rely on a weak partner at the cost of rising India, the world’s largest prospective market.
It was in the nineties that the two sides took serious steps over improvisation of relations when Saudi Arabia helped India (home to second largest Muslim population in the world) attain the observer status in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). It also became critical of Pak sponsored terrorism in India in the following years. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia became the first state head to have visited India after a period of 52 years in 2006, thus finally breaking the ice. The move was coincided with a shift in India’s strategic relations with United States when India signed a nuclear deal with US in the same year. The Saudi king and the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also signed an agreement forging a strategic energy partnership that was termed the “Delhi Declaration”. The pact provides for a “reliable, stable and increased volume of crude oil supplies to India through long-term contracts” (CNN January 27, 2006). Both nations also agreed on joint ventures and the development of oil and natural gas in public and private sectors. An Indo-Saudi joint declaration in the Indian capital New Delhi described the king’s visit as “heralding a new era in India-Saudi Arabia relations” (BBC, January 27, 2006).
Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth largest trade partner (after China, USA and Japan) and is a major source of energy as India imports around 18% of its crude oil requirement from the Kingdom. In 2018-19 (as per DGFT), India-Saudi bilateral trade has increased by 23.83 % to US$ 34.03 billion. Indo-Saudi bilateral trade reached US$36 billion in the financial year 2019-20. The Indian investments in the Kingdom have grown significantly, especially after the signing of Bilateral Investment Promotion Agreement (BIPA) and Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement (DTAA) in 2006. However, the trade surplus is in favour of Saudi Arabia and recently it has focused on exploring more fields except oil in India. During the visit of Saudi Prince to India in February 2019, the declaration of a mammoth investment of US $100 billion in the next few years in different sectors like energy, refining, petrochemicals, infrastructure, agriculture, minerals and mining, manufacturing, education and health have paved a way for further consolidation of their mutual relations. The Ministry of Finance also signed an MoU with the Saudi Ministry of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources in February 2019 to invest in India’s National Investment and Infrastructure Fund Limited (NIIF). The NITI Aayog-Saudi Centre for International Strategic Partnership workshop in Riyadh on 17-18 February, 2019 identified 40 potential projects for investments. Subsequent to the Framework Agreement signed between Invest India and SAGIA in February 2019, the Invest India Team visited the Kingdom multiple times and held wide interactions with the major players in the Kingdom in diversified sectors (Embassy of India, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia).
The Middle East
After the US move of withdrawing from active role in the region the new aspirants for dominance like Iran and Saudi Arabia are looking for diversification and intensification of relations with the prospective prolific partners. PM Modi’s visits to Middle East have also given significant energy to India’s policy objectives. India is a strategic partner of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel and has a tremendous scope of playing crucial role with its highly demanded soft power resources. In the meantime the increased Chinese presence and its ambitious OBOR project have triggered a new wave of strategic thinking in the region with the debilitated US and rejuvenating Israel.
In response to abrogation of special status under article 370 by India to Jammu & Kashmir Pakistan government had released a new political maps in September that claimed the Indian territories of Junagadh, Sir Creek, and Manavadar in Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir and a part of Ladakh. Pakistan also proposed November 15, 2020 as the date for elections in disputed Gilgit-Baltisatn area which receives strong Indian protests. The revocation of Article 370 had the backing both of Saudi Arabia and UAE for whom India has emerged as a significant trade and strategic partner. The Saudi Arabian step of showing Kashmir as an independent state is just to disgrace the stakeholders especially Pakistan which had challenged its leadership recently over its Kashmir policy among the members of OIC. This led to the revocation of huge loans to Pakistan by Saudi government and the retaliation doesn’t end here. It also seems to be adapting to the new developments and alignments, the emergence of which takes shape in view of Turkish-Iranian dream of leading the Muslim world.
With the announcement in August of the U.S.-brokered Israel-UAE ‘normalization deal’ it appears that a new corridor of co-operation is being developed from the U.S. (and Israel), through the UAE (and Kuwait, Bahrain, and in part Saudi Arabia) through to India, as a regional counterbalance to China’s growing sphere of influence (Simson Watkins). India is likely to leave China behind as the top driver of growth in oil demand by 2024. India has also shored up its energy investments in the region. India’s ONGC Videsh has acquired a 10% stake in an offshore oil concession in Abu Dhabi, UAE, for $600 million (Economic Times). The August deal of ‘Israel-UAE thaw’ appears to have crafted a new zone of collaboration among US, Israel, UAE, Saudi Arabia and India in order to deal with the OBOR challenge from China. In the meantime the Saudi move highlights Kashmir as a major issue yet to be settled keeping the stakeholders away and pleading for the voices looking for a space in the highly volatile region. The move may have further ramifications for the region as it might have worked on behest of a clandestine director looking for ‘another Kuwait’ and entrench a strong foothold as part of a larger geostrategic plan. After receiving Indian protests to the move it would be wise for Saudi Arabia to mend the flaw and negotiate furtherance of bilateralism.
BBC. “New era for Saudi-Indian ties”. 27 January 2006. Retrieved on 14 Aug. 2020.
CNN. “India, Saudi Arabia in energy deal”. 27 January 2006. Retrieved on 4 June 2020.
Economic Times. November 3, 2019.
Embassy of India, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. “India-Saudi Arabia Economic and Commercial Relations”. Retrieved on November 10, 2020. https://www.eoiriyadh.gov.in/page/india-saudi-business-relations/.
Watkins, Simson. “Two Major Power Blocs Are Vying For Power In The Middle East.” Oilprice.com. Retrieved on November 8, 2020. https://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/Two-Major-Power-Blocs-Are-Vying-For-Power-In-The-Middle-East.html
Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war
After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.
This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies. This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.
A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.
First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib
Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*
The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.
The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.
Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.
As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.
But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.
This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.
To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.
The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.
For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.
Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.
Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.
The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.
Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.
* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)
From our partner RIAC
Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed
No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.
The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.
Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.
Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.
The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.
In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.
The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.
For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.
Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.
The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.
If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.
The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.
If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
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