India Has Jaswant Singh to Thank for Close Ties With Saudi Arabia
This story first appeared in The Wire
Atal Bihar Vajpayee’s foreign minister spotted a line in one of the ‘for your eyes only’ dispatches from Riyadh, that had then Saudi Crown Prince Abdulla bin Abdulaziz Al Saud asking, “Why has India forgotten us…”
As India mourns the passing of Jaswant Singh, one of its finest foreign ministers entrusted by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee with building bridges with the United States, few know that he was single-handedly responsible for breathing life into ties between Delhi and Riyadh that had remained moribund for years.
Much of the credit for today’s close ties between the Gulf region and India is placed at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s door, post the premier’s own landmark visits to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in 2019, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s visit to Delhi soon after the Pulwama attack in February 2019.
But the building blocks were crafted over 20 years ago, when then prime minister Vajpayee’s new foreign minister spotted a line in one of the ‘for your eyes only’ dispatches from Riyadh, that had then Saudi Crown Prince Abdulla bin Abdulaziz Al Saud asking, “Why has India forgotten us…”
Singh saw it as a sign that the goalposts were shifting and tasked the Ministry of External Affairs and the counter-intelligence agencies, Research & Analysis Wing and the Intelligence Bureau, to gauge Saudi intent. Neither the diplomats nor the spooks saw any merit in reaching out to a country they saw as deeply entrenched in the Pakistan camp.
But Singh foresaw a relationship that could go beyond the transactional, beyond the dependence on energy imports, and the safeguarding of the remittances of the 10 million Indians working across the Gulf. His aim was to construct a strategic shared vision of the neighbourhood, post the Gulf War, and hope to lessen the overarching hold that Pakistan then enjoyed in the region.
Singh’s path-breaking visit to Saudi Arabia would take another three years to come to fruition, when Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs Dr Nizar Obaid Al Madani finally arrived in Delhi with a formal invitation. In January of 2001, Jaswant Singh would become the first Indian foreign minister and the highest ranking Indian official to step foot on Saudi soil. Waiting to receive him at the airport was his counterpart, Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud bin Faisal. While that was no break with accepted protocol, the next few hours and days would be replete with much symbolism and some substance.
Singh and the prince would spend an hour, closeted in the limousine, right there on the tarmac, discussing everything from the contentious to the sublime, from Kashmir to the 50-60 years of support for Pakistan. In public, Prince Saud would make clear that “they valued ties with India, and that the Delhi-Riyadh relationship would not be influenced by Riyadh’s relation with other countries”, (a reference to Pakistan) and that Kashmir was a purely bilateral issue.
As Singh would later tell Talmiz Ahmed, the man he had hand-picked as his ambassador to Riyadh, “I like the Saudis.” There was little doubt, it was reciprocated. But then, Jaswant Singh, had a singular calling card, which the ruling Al Sauds who hail from the Najd region, recognised in the Barmer native with his deep roots in Rajasthan’s Thar desert. Here was someone with whom they shared a common desert heritage.
That came through in a three-hour conversation he would share with King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz, and later with Crown Prince Abdulla where they dwelt, among other things, on their mutual passion for horses. It would of course lead to the crown prince’s son, the young Prince Mitaib’s storied invitation to Singh to a farm just outside the city, where he was presented with three priceless Arab racehorses, that were later flown to India at not inconsiderable cost by the Saudis.
Ambassador Ahmed tells you how Jaswant Singh had asked him to explore the desert ancestry of the Al Sauds, the minute the Crown Prince brought up what he saw as India’s cold-shouldering of the Gulf state. Ahmed, who had earlier served in the modern city of Jeddah, would wake up to the Najdi connect, that would be an ice-breaker, only a full two years later.
While the Indian and Saudi delegations worked on a slew of agreements that would put in place the framework of a formal political engagement that would see visits to Delhi become more commonplace, first by Abdulla when he succeeded to the throne in 2006, and by the present Saudi Crown Prince last year, drawn by India’s then booming economy and a shared concern over terror after the 26/11 attack on Mumbai by Pakistani terrorists, there was one more incident during the Jaswant Singh visit in 2001 that moved the Al Sauds.
As Singh waited for an audience with the King in one of his plush palaces, India’s urbane foreign minister was drawn to the many black and white photographs and paintings of a bygone era, particularly one that showed a Bedouin woman riding a horse with her baby strapped to her back. Singh broke down in tears, finally admitting it was because it reminded him of his early childhood in the heat of the desert in his home town of Jasol when he rode with his mother.
As his family and legion of admirers bid farewell to the always warm and welcoming politician who never took umbrage if you disagreed with him, Jaswant Singh’s compelling contribution to opening the doors to transformational ties with the Gulf nations that have withstood the test of time, must not go unremarked.