Construction projects on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai have come to a virtual standstill. Financial agents in the region can’t wait to offload the real estate deals that burden the books of the Emirates and its banks, not to mention the international banks whose chambers in London and New York shudder with any mention of more real estate failures. A fire sale has begun, with construction firms like Arabtec now being offered for a song, and as Dubai’s own sheikhs bend their knees to Abu Dhabi to help with the $150 billion debt (the IMF says $109 billion, EFG-Hermes pushes it upward). The Sultans of Arabia are displeased. Oil profits sail in, but these are magically converted into petro-dollars that then boomerang to Wall Street, where they are welcomed by Goldman Sachs and its élèves who, these days, lock them up in their vaults, afraid to lend to anyone despite the blandishments of Obama and Bernanke. Petro-dollars are no salve to Dubai’s ailments.
Riyadh’s first family looks at the margins of their peninsula with concern. The financial turbulence of Dubai is one indication. Another is the rising insurgency in southern Yemen, compounded with the restive radical Islamists, whether in or out of al-Qaeda. The Carter Doctrine (1980) protects U. S. interests in the Persian Gulf, toward which the U. S. created the Central Command to organize this defense. Till now, those interests have included the protection of the House of Saud, whose current king, Abdullah, has effectively governed since 1995. The huge U. S. troop presence in Saudi Arabia since August 1990 served as a barrier against Iraq, but also as a fire-starter for domestic Islamists who were outraged at the presence of U. S. troops in the land of Mecca and Medina (it is this that turned Osama Bin Laden from an anti-communist militant to an anti-American one). Drone attacks in Yemen continue the policy of preserving the petrified Saud family, whose king is now personally worth about $22 billion (he is the third richest royal, after Rama IX of Thailand and Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates). The U. S. is effectively pledged to protect all these billionaire blue bloods against the grievances and aspirations of their own peoples.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia recognized after 9/11 that the status quo is not permanent. U. S. wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, and Israeli wars against Lebanon and Gaza, as well as U. S. posturing against Iran have inflamed the Arab population and put the Sultans of Arabia in a box. They cannot be seen to be puppets of Washington, but nor can they alienate their principle benefactors. Anti-Saudi sentiment in the U. S. alarmed the royals (in 2002, a RAND expert told the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, without rebuttal, that Saudi Arabia is a “kernel of evil”; even the ever-pliant Prince Bandar, Saudi Ambassador to the Bush Family, was disheartened). In 2003, the U. S. government relocated much of its forces from their Saudi bases to Qatar. The U. S. then delivered Baghdad to the Shi’a political parties, who have a special relationship with Iran. On the political front, the Saudi royals no longer felt the warm embrace of Washington.
Economically things were even more fragile. Talk of “clean energy” has Riyadh afraid (indeed, at climate treaty negotiations, the Saudis have tried to mobilize the OPEC countries to push for compensation if oil consumption is reduced; the principle Saudi negotiator at Copenhagen, Mohammed al-Sabban proposed that the G-7 states provide the oil producers with technology and investment toward economic diversification). The U. S. has gradually shifted its oil dependence on the Gulf to new suppliers, such as Nigeria (the top three suppliers to the U. S. are now Nigeria, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia – the U. S. imports crude oil from Mexico and Canada in large quantities, but these are refined and exported back across the northern and southern border). The Central Command is busy fighting wars that don’t seem to directly defend the Arabian Peninsula. Meanwhile, the Bush team created the African Command (Africom), whose ambit appears to be the protection of the oil lands of Africa. Finally, with oil itself being finite, the Saudis are concerned that they must diversify their economy.
If the Saudis could not look to Washington, Abdullah proposed that Riyadh “look east.” Abdullah was always a major defender of Washington inside Riyadh Palace. But after his ascent to the throne, he began to listen more carefully to the Minister of Defense, Prince Sultan (the son of Prince Bandar). For the past three decades, the Chinese have sold the Saudis missile technology, including intermediate-range ballistic missiles. In making these deals, Sultan had a ringside seat to China’s transformation and was comfortable with Beijing’s ambitions in the Gulf. China is now the principle buyer of Saudi oil. It has also begun to invest in the peninsula, putting some of its considerable surplus to work on technological projects that might help diversify the one-crop Saudi economy. The Saudi oil company, Aramco, has thrown its wealth and expertise into China’s petroleum refining sector (it will invest $8 billion to build a new refinery in Guangzhou). Abdullah visited Beijing in January 2006, and Hu Jintao hastened to the peninsula in April, where he addressed the Shura, one of the few foreign leaders to talk to the King’s advisory council. Abdullah has since honored China by calling the Chinese his “brothers,” a word reserved by Riyadh to describe fellow Muslims.
During Abdullah’s January 2006 tour, he stopped in India. Here he was the chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations. The irony seemed lost on both the Indian and Saudi governments. Here was a hereditary monarch of a theocratic state as the guest of honor for a celebration of India’s freedom struggle and its secular, socialist Constitution. Indeed, it was odd to have a Saudi monarch in India. The last time one came was in 1955, when King Saud visited India. Earlier that year, Saud was at the Afro-Asian conference at Bandung, where he had befriended Nehru and had pledged his kingdom to “non-alignment.” Not long after this brief friendship, the Saudis gave themselves over to the United States and drifted far from the Third World project. Nehru went to Riyadh in 1956, but it was a frosty visit. The people who gathered to welcome Nehru chanted marhaba Nehru rassoul al salam, welcome prophet of peace, but Crown Prince Faisal and King Saud were less enthused. Peace, for them, came in the form of the F-100 Super Sabre.
In 1991, India’s new “reform” era opened with a commitment to neo-liberal state policy and a turn toward Washington against the non-aligned traditions of the dirigiste state. Manmohan Singh left his post at the South Commission for the Finance Ministry, where he guided the reform process. Three years into India’s liberalization process, Singh traveled to Saudi Arabia. It had become clear to the Indian Finance Minister and to the Indian business world in general that India had to seek out new avenues for its growing energy needs. The previously state-owned Oil and National Gas Corporation (ONGC) went public, and began to prospect from the Persian Gulf to Sakhalin Island. But even ONGC’s finds would not be enough. Singh went to address the Indo-Saudi Joint Commission, a body set up in 1982 on the basis of increased South-South cooperation. Now, the main issue was energy resources for India, and diversification of its economy for Saudi Arabia. The diplomatic process had been stalled by several intractable problems: Saudi Arabia’s alignment with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, India and Saudi Arabia’s divergence on the imbroglio in Afghanistan, and so on. It was not a pretty picture. But, the economic needs sidelined the political differences, which were soon re-packaged into agreement (both parties, for instance, agreed in general that terrorism is not a good thing, but neither took pains to define who might be the terrorist in which case). Manmohan Singh’s journey to Riyadh was followed by a series of visits between the two countries, and an onrush of oil. In 2006, King Abdullah came to Delhi, signed the Delhi Declaration and turned on the spigot: Saudi Arabia is now India’s leading crude oil resource ($2.8 billion worth in 2008).
In the late 1990s, when the Hindu Right ruled in Delhi, they made a strategic miscalculation, and so tripped up this relationship. Believing that the way to Washington was via Tel Aviv, and that the political fight against terrorism is far more important than the economic lubricant from Saudi Arabia, the Hindu Right made an entente with Israel (I recount this story in Namaste Sharon, LeftWord, 2003). The Saudi royals sniffed at the poor choice of ally (they prefer their own link to the Israelis to be pragmatically managed by Washington, rather than openly celebrated at Herzilya). It was only when Manmohan Singh returned to power in 2004, this time as Prime Minister, that the far more strategically essential alliance was forged, this around oil and technology, not hot pursuit and targeted assassinations.
Manmohan Singh made his triumphant return to Riyadh over this past weekend (the first time in twenty-eight years that an Indian head of state went to Saudi Arabia). Like Hu Jintao before him, Singh addressed the Shura, and was received by King Abdullah not as “brothers,” but as “dearest friends.” Deals of oil, capital and technology are hastily being signed. Manmohan Singh’s longest handshake was with Saudi Oil minister Ali Al Naimi. The Saudis and Indians celebrated the two million Indians who work in the Kingdom. Many of them, on the other hand, might agree with Habib Hussain of Moradabad, who complained that Indians are treated like cattle in Arabia after he escaped the kingdom in the toilet of a commercial aircraft. The Indian Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, Vayalar Ravi met with the Saudi Arabian National Recruitment Committee, but nothing concrete came of it. Hard to treat workers nicely whose advantage is that they are international serfs. All the right noises were made, though. Dubai is the sore on the peninsula. It is also the city-state with the greatest Indian influence, whether of bankers, construction workers or gangsters. Not much was said of its financial problems, nor for the elaboration of the Gulf Cooperation Council-India Joint Study Group, set up in 2009 under Saudi auspices. Both Delhi and Riyadh wanted to insulate themselves from the mess in Dubai.
The tangled world of alliances did come up for discussion, but not at center-stage. That was reserved for economic matters. Prince Saud al-Faisal, who runs foreign affairs, pointed out that Pakistan is going through a rough patch, and that the Saudis worry about the “dangerous things” ongoing there. The Indian tweeting minister, Shashi Tharoor, got into his usual mess when the media thought that his use of the term “interlocutor” to refer to Saudi Arabia meant that he wanted the Saudis to mediate peace talks between India and Pakistan. That was not so. But the subject did come up, as did Afghanistan, to which the Saudis made clear that they severed their ties with the Taliban once al-Qaeda took up residence in the country. Once more the right words were spoken, but nothing tangible emerged, not even the usual promise from Riyadh to bring India into the Organization of The Islamic Conference (even as an observer, not as a member). None of these countries wants to take leadership in the recovery of Afghanistan; not as long as the U. S. occupation is ongoing.
What is clear from this new partnership is that India has now given itself over to the political status quo in West Asia. India’s reticence from Saudi Arabia was founded on India’s fealty to Arab nationalism, whose standard-bearer in the 1950s and 1960s was Gamel Abdul Nasser, the great enemy of the Saudi royal family. Now with the demise of Arab nationalism and the transformation of Indian nationalism, the stage has been set for these two powers of the Indian Ocean to join hands. Abdullah looks east to the two emergent Asian giants, wanting their technological expertise, and to link his kingdom to the Asian Century. Manmohan of Arabia goes home with a trunk full of oil, and the shattered dreams of Arab republicanism that once felt that India was its ally, and whose hopes were lifted when the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz sang his great anti-monarchical anthem, hum dekhain gay (we shall see):
Jab arz-e Khuda ke kaabe se
Sab but uthwaaly jain gay
Hum ehl-e-safa mardood-e-haram
Masnad pe bithaalay jain gay
Sab Taaj uchalay jain gay
Sab Takht giraaiy jain gay.
When from God’s palace
All icons will be removed
We who stand in the mosque
Will be elevated to the altar.
All the crowns will be thrown off,
Al the thrones will fall.
VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Professor of International Studies at Trinity College. His book Darker Nations is now out in French (Les Éditions Écosociété) and Swedish (Leopard Förlag). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.