The monarch’s death prompted a wave of condolences from leaders around the world.
US President Barack Obama is cutting short his India trip to go to Riyadh, the British flag flew at half-mast at Westminster, and the International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde stunning called him a “strong advocate for women”.
For its part, India sent Vice President Hamid Ansari to Riyadh to pay respects. In addition, the government announced a day of mourning on January 24 for the “close ally and friend” of the country.
To many in India, the announcement was a rude surprise.
On social media, many people labelled the Saudi state as regressive and archaic, while underlining its human rights violations and its alleged role in fomenting extremism.
The question they collectively appeared to ask was: why should the Indian government give this much importance to a country that has such a poor human rights record, a country that allows public beheadings, forbids dissent, and disallows women from driving?
The answers to those questions lie in mainly four places: the politics of oil, the 2.5 million-strong Indian community in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh’s influence on Sunni Muslims (who make up the majority of India’s Muslim population), and it being the home of Mecca and Medina.
Largely, however, Indo-Saudi relations and goodwill rest on New Delhi’s need to buy great quantities of oil and Riyadh’s concurrent need to sell great quantities of oil.
In 2006, when King Abdullah visited India as the chief guest at the Republic Day parade, the trip was hailed as a milestone. The first visit by a Saudi king to India in 51 years, it saw the signing of the “Delhi Declaration” forging a strategic energy partnership between the two nations. Saudi Arabia is still India’s biggest provider of crude oil.
For Saudi Arabia, oil revenues are as crucial for maintaining domestic security as for spreading its clout. From the billions it earns from oil, the country spends billions buying weapons from the West. During the Arab Spring, it spent billions more on social schemes to keep its population “in check” – building universities, generating jobs and giving doles – while orchestrating increased control through its brutal police.
On the other side of the equation is India, a country that suffers from a major energy deficit and therefore needs to import great amounts of oil. Without this key resource, it cannot hope to achieve the 8% growth rate it has set for itself.
So cemented has their relationship become that, some years ago, the Saudi national petroleum company Aramco’s CEO said that Riyadh was willing to sell any amount of oil to India, no conditions attached, and would continue to do so even if the country falls behind on payments.
According to the International Energy Agency, the number of people in India still under the “energy poverty line” is around the same number as the entire population of the United States.
As the US becomes energy self-sufficient, the biggest markets for Saudi oil will be in the East – India, China and Japan. This alone will make India want to bolster its relations with the Saudi monarchy.
The West’s reasons to support the House of Saud are different from India’s. Nonetheless, for both, it is easier to deal with one prevailing kingdom than a disintegrating structure of the kind some Middle Eastern states have become recently. All this, of course, is more relevant when most of the world’s oil reserves come into play.
The mourning for King Abdullah in India is, therefore, due to its crucial national interests which demand that it stay within its strategic circle and avoid overreach.
As long as the country imports 80% of its oil needs, India cannot displease any kingdom or king that controls large reserves of oil.