Monday, 30th October 2017

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Testing ground for 'Salman Doctrine'

Modi stumped by king's call

By K.P. Nayar
  • Published 3.04.15

April 2: For the first time since Narendra Modi assumed a new public persona in 2001 with his dramatic entry into Gujarat's government, he was at a loss for words, but only briefly.

It happened on Monday, March 30. The time was around 9.30pm, not at all late for a workaholic Prime Minister who sleeps only a few hours but rather an unconventional time to take a phone call from a head of state, that too one who is in a time zone that is not very different from New Delhi's.

At the other end of the line was a caller who had in all probability never before dialled a number in India: Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, the new king of Saudi Arabia.

Modi had been prepared for this phone call by officials in line with what to normally expect from Riyadh. Or from similar callers from the Gulf, mostly in person in the last nine months - large doses of pleasantries, declarations of good intent, references to historic links from the colonial period when much of the Gulf was administered by the British out of India, etc, etc....

Saudi foreign policy has never been upfront even when it has been extremely effective. The House of Saud usually gets its way by persuading other countries such as the US to do what it wants them to do.

So on Monday, when the king departed from this habit of yore and began hinting at what is rapidly being christened in major world capitals as the "Salman Doctrine", the Prime Minister did not know how to react. He did not expect this from his caller.

Modi quickly recovered and steered the conversation away from fundamental issues of strategy into what is rapidly becoming the sheet anchor of the Modi foreign policy: the welfare of Indians abroad.

Modi did not lose face with the King and impressed some Saudis with his determination to safely bring home the 4,000 or so Indians caught up in a civil war in Saudi Arabia's backyard: Yemen.

But in the process, India lost a plot unfolding in Yemen that, in all probability, will change the world as much as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 had.

That invasion started a train of events where the Americans, in one of history's monumental instances of short-sightedness, embraced policies that went on to haunt them with the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.

Two days before speaking to Modi, the Saudi monarch had had a long conversation with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as a follow-up to Sharif's visit to Riyadh in the first week of March, when Salman took Pakistan into confidence on his new security doctrine.

To say that Sharif received red-carpet treatment in the kingdom would be an understatement. He was received at Riyadh airport by the King himself, accompanied by Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, the deputy crown prince, the governor of Riyadh, a procession of princes and half the cabinet, not to mention Saudi Arabia's military chiefs.

At the core of the Salman doctrine is a dilution of America's role in the security of the Gulf region. That does not mean cutting the US out of the defence framework for the critical oil lanes or the oilfields or offshore platforms.

But in the new king's scheme of things it will be the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states that will be in charge as Washington makes up with Tehran. Yemen is a testing ground for the new doctrine.

Clearly, the GCC countries cannot do it alone. The Saudis want the muscle power for this new arrangement to come from Islamabad - rather, from Rawalpindi where the army general headquarters is located.

They also want the diplomatic clout, the sophistication and the velvet smoothness for this arrangement to come from: where else but Istanbul, once Constantinople, the seat of the old Ottoman empire for nearly five centuries and that of the Ottoman Caliphate.

There is a grand sense of re-enactment of history in the suggestion that Sharif may travel to Turkey as early as Friday after having called a joint session of Pakistan's Parliament on Monday to debate Salman's invitation to join the GCC's military enterprise to sort out Yemen.

Realpolitik suggests that Pakistan is merely going through the pretence of consultation and debate on this issue. Islamabad and Rawalpindi are really left with little choice when a request to that effect comes from the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

A statement put out by Sharif's office today could not have made it any clearer: "Given the close historical cultural and religious affinities between the peoples of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, it was reaffirmed that any isolation of Saudi Arabia's territorial integrity will evoke a strong response from Pakistan."

How strong that response ought to be is all that is left to be decided between Sharif and the chief of army staff, General Raheel Sharif, while the joint session of Parliament debates the matter for form's sake.

If such a script has already been written and is to be enacted in the coming weeks, the question naturally arises: what was the point in Salman's phone call to Modi on Monday? The answer is that the UPA government invested heavily in developing relations with Saudi Arabia.

Apart from the UPA inviting Salman's predecessor, King Abdullah, as the chief guest at Republic Day, its defence minister A.K. Antony travelled to the kingdom and initiated pioneering defence cooperation. The Saudis are keen to preserve what has been achieved with India.

The safe return of Indians from Yemen is important. At the same time, it would have been better had Modi not wasted an opportunity afforded by the phone call from the king of Saudi Arabia by discussing non-resident Indians and their evacuation from Aden although it may fetch the BJP votes in an election.