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Amid Uncertainty in Afghanistan, Saudi Crown Prince's India Visit Raises Bigger Questions

India wants its economic assets to be secured in Afghanistan. It has made significant development assistance exceeding $3 billion, becoming the largest donor in the region.

New Delhi: The election season is underway in India but in its midst, comes a surprise visit by a high profile dignitary. It's the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had extended an invitation to MBS — as he is informally called — during their bilateral meeting in Argentina on the sidelines of G-20 summit in November last year. The invitation was accepted and the visit has been swiftly arranged even though the other proposed visit in February, that of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu continues to look uncertain.

The bilateral engagement with this important player in West Asia assumes even greater significance as India tries to chart its strategy ahead in Afghanistan. With US President Donald Trump increasingly showing signs of withdrawing American troop, the situation is rapidly evolving and is very dynamic at present, according to sources. Sources told News18 that “it is important for us (India) not to act in haste.” But India is deeply concerned about its economic assets in the war-torn country and security situation in the region.

Saudi Arabia’s ties with Afghanistan may not have been overt in the last decade but as uncertainty looms, Riyadh seems to be back in action. Unofficial contacts have been established between Taliban and Afghan government in Saudi Arabia recently, even though the Taliban seems to maintain that it will negotiate directly with the US and rejected any formal talks with the Afghan government in January in Saudi Arabia.

Washington has also dropped its hesitation in engaging the Taliban but India has its reservations. During the Moscow talks on Afghanistan in November last year, where Taliban was at the table, India participated at a “non-official level”.

India wants its economic assets to be secured in Afghanistan. It has made significant development assistance exceeding $3 billion, being the largest donor in the region. There are also substantial private investments that India has been encouraging for rebuilding the country. There are 116 new ‘High Impact Community Development projects’ in 31 provinces. Small development project schemes worth $19.5 million were approved.

India is believed to have explained this to the US Special Envoy in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad when he visited New Delhi recently. More significantly, New Delhi has been working behind the scenes. It has engaged with Pashtun leaders and Hazaras. It is also in close touch with Russia and Iran and will also hold discussions with China.

Engaging with Saudi Arabia on Afghanistan also becomes important in this situation. Mohammad Bin Salman’s visit will see the two sides discuss the regional situation, specifically Afghanistan, said a source. Riyadh was one of the very few states that recognised the Taliban government in Afghanistan, before the relationship soured after 9/11.

Saudi Arabia has also shown interest in taking the relationship with India beyond energy partnership. In Buenos Aires Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale had said, "The Crown Prince spoke of India as an important partner for Saudi Arabia and there was very specific discussion that took place between the two leaders on how Saudi Arabia can enhance its investment across a number of sectors in the next two to three years."

The sectors being looked at are technology, agriculture and renewable energy. In view of the US sanctions on Iran, MBS is believed to have assured India of "contributing and helping in stabilising energy prices".