NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia on Sunday is part of a broader diplomatic offensive to put pressure on Pakistan by forging ties with some of Islamabad’s closest allies, Indian ruling party and government officials said.

Modi is expected to sign trade agreements, including contracts to secure investment for infrastructure projects, and offer security and military cooperation, such as training and joint exercises, they said.

The visit comes just months after he travelled to another Pakistan ally, the United Arab Emirates, and signed a security cooperation agreement that includes regular meetings between top security advisers.

“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, national general secretary of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

Stronger relationships with Pakistan’s allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE can help India get a more sympathetic hearing on global and regional forums and put pressure on Islamabad.

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

New Delhi has been frustrated that its ties with countries have often been coloured by concerns about its relationship with Pakistan. One foreign ministry official said the Saudis tended to bring up Pakis­tan during discussions with India.

Government officials described Modi’s diplomatic push as an effort to “de-hyphenate” India from Pak­istan, especially as New Delhi tries to play a bigger geopolitical role in Asia to counter China’s influence.

Until now, India’s relationship with 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.

Over the past few years, there has been some cooperation on security between the two countries, with Riyadh deporting four most wanted fugitives to India.

Modi will look to broaden those ties, with one foreign ministry official saying healthcare, education, religious tourism and labour re­for­ms would also be key talking points.

Still, there are limits to what New Delhi can hope to achieve. The relationship between Pakistan and the Saudis goes back decades, based in their shared Muslim heritage.

Saudi Arabia has long been a source of financial aid for Islamabad. In 2014, the Saudis gave Pakistan $1.5 billion as a “gift” to shore up its foreign reserves.

But Indian officials said the timing was right for Modi’s visit, as relations between Riyadh and Islamabad enter a “rough patch”.

Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2016

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