Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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The Object of India’s Ire

by Steven A. Cook
September 26, 2013

The arches at Ferguson College. Pune, India.


Pune, India–My last two posts from India looked at the mistrust with which many Indians view the United States and the way in which the Palestine issue plays out here.  There is no consensus on these issues, though.  My meetings in Mumbai and Pune over the last few days have made it abundantly clear that along with those who are wary of American foreign policy, there are strong advocates of close U.S.-India ties.  In addition, there are Indians who see the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in terms far different from my interlocutors in Lucknow and Chennai.  As one academic specialist in international relations told me today, “India is Israel’s only true friend in Asia.”  Yet there seems to be one country that has brought Indians across the country’s boisterous political spectrum together in shared enmity.  If you guessed Pakistan, you would be correct, but that Indians generally despise Pakistan is a given—a lay-up for anyone who has ever glanced at a newspaper every now and again.  Besides Pakistan, which is widely regarded as a rogue, terrorist state here, Indians have expressed a deep and abiding dislike for Saudi Arabia.

The sources of the India’s collective Saudi neuralgia lie in three areas:

1) There are 1.5 million Indian workers in Saudi Arabia—the largest number of expat workers in the country.  Needless to say, the Saudis do not have the best reputation for treating the people who make the country run with much in the way of respect.

2) The Indians regard Saudi Arabia (and the United States) as the primary funder, political supporter, and diplomatic defender of Pakistan.  To Indians, this support makes Saudi Arabia culpable in part when Islamabad-supported terrorist organizations target Indian security forces in Kashmir like today’s attack that killed 12 at a military base in Srinagar.  They also hold Riyadh to blame for the regular skirmishes between the Pakistani and Indian militaries.  Of course, the Saudis have significantly less influence with the Pakistanis than many Indians believe, but as always, perception matters and in the Indian view Saudis play a critical and malevolent role in the tense relations between Islamabad and New Delhi.

3) I did not understand it when I was in Lucknow and two Urdu-language journalists were quizzing me about Saudi Arabia and Hillary Clinton’s alleged role in supporting Wahhabism.  Besides the sheer ridiculousness of their claims concerning Secretary Clinton, I did not quite grasp the paranoia about Saudi Arabia.  It all came together yesterday when a number of Mumbai-based analysts clued me in to the fact that Indians are quite concerned about Saudi efforts to propagate Wahhabism on the sub-continent.  They are also worried about all those expats who might return to India carrying a Wahhabi worldview and who might, in turn, inculcate fellow Indian Muslims with that brand of Islam.  My friends in Mumbai explained that this is a grave threat to what they called “integrative Indian Islam.”

Unfortunately for India, it is stuck with Saudi Arabia.  Of the 63 percent of oil that it imports from the Persian Gulf, 19 percent comes from Saudi Arabia.  Even if India begins a crash effort to develop alternative sources of energy—the government just announced an initiative to explore for shale gas—it will be a very long time before it could possibly wean itself from Saudi crude.  The Kingdom is also a source of employment for some of India’s excess human capital even if the number of Indian workers in Saudi Arabia is small compared to India’s overall population of 1.2 billion.  There is no place else in the Gulf that can accommodate that many Indian expats.  This leaves the Indians in the infuriating position of having to depend on a country that many believe will ultimately do their own country a great deal of harm.

Hyderabad is next….


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  • Posted by Jon Goodfellow

    It will be interesting to see how long it takes to tap shale gas in India. One suspects it shares many of the same obstacles as CNPC and Shell have found in China: limited water, unknown/complex geology and high population density. India may not have to rely on the Saudis though for the intermediate term. The Aussies have large shale deposits with much lower hurdles to extraction, and reliable export markets.

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