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Indian PM Puts Pressure On Pakistan With Saudi Visit

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, center right, being welcomed by the prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif at the airport in Lahore, Pakistan, in December 2015.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi continued a diplomatic offensive against its arch rival, Pakistan, on April 2 with a visit to Saudi Arabia in a bid to forge stronger ties with some of Islamabad’s closest allies.

During his visit, Modi will sign trade agreements and offer security and military cooperation, according to government sources. A few months ago, Modi had visited the United Arab Emirates -- another Pakistan ally -- to sign a security cooperation agreement.

"It's simple. We have to do everything to deal with Pakistan -- use economics, strategy, and emotional ties to win the hearts of Islamabad's friends," said Ram Madhav, the national general secretary of Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

India and Pakistan, longtime rivals and both nuclear-armed, have fought three wars since gaining independence in 1947, two of which were fought over the contested territory of Kashmir.

Fostering relations with Pakistan’s allies -- such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE -- could give India more global and regional support and put pressure on Islamabad to rein in militants.

On March 31, Saudi Arabia and the United States imposed joint sanctions targeting the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group blamed for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai.

New Delhi has been frustrated that its international relations have often been tainted by concerns over Pakistan. A Foreign Ministry official said the Saudis often bring up the subject of Pakistan in talks with India.

Government officials described Modi's campaign as an effort to "de-hyphenate" India from Pakistan, especially as New Delhi tries to play a bigger geopolitical role in Asia to counter the influence of China.

Up until now, the relationship between India and Saudi Arabia has been driven primarily by trade and the Indian diaspora in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is India's top energy supplier and home to more than 3.5 million Indian expatriates.

There has been some cooperation on security between the two countries in recent years, with Riyadh deporting four wanted fugitives to India.

Modi is hoping to broaden those ties, and health care, education, religious tourism, and labor reform will be key talking points, according to one official.

There are, however, limits to what New Delhi can hope to achieve. The relationship between Pakistan and the Saudis dates back decades, based on a shared Sunni Muslim heritage.

Saudi Arabia has long provided Pakistan with financial aid. In 2014, the Saudis gave Islamabad $1.5 billion as a "gift" to shore up its foreign reserves.

In the 2000s, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spent time in political exile in Saudi Arabia after he was ousted by a military coup.

But Indian officials said the timing was right for Modi's visit, as relations between Riyadh and Islamabad have been under strain. Last year, Pakistan declined to provide ships, aircraft and troops to the Saudi-led fight to halt Iranian-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen. It has also sought to avoid taking sides in the escalating dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

"Pakistan knows that relations with Saudi have reached a low. That doesn't mean India can fill that gap," said Zahid Hussain, a former newspaper editor in Pakistan. "But certainly this is part of Modi's diplomatic offensive in the region."

With reporting by Rupam Jain for Reuters