India-Saudi Arabia: Steady Relations

Saudi Arabia King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud (L) was in India in 2014 as defense minister, where he met with Vice President Hamid Ansari. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

India’s Prime Minister will discuss security and economic ties on his visit to Saudi Arabia

By S Venkat Narayan

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming official visit to Saudi Arabia is seen by many analysts as a landmark move expected to boost India’s growing ties with the Arab world in general, and the kingdom in particular.

Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Adel Al Jubeir was in New Delhi on March 7, to prepare for Modi’s second visit to the Arab Gulf region in seven months. Modi was in the United Arab Emirates last August, and his trip to Saudi Arabia is scheduled for April 2.

Modi will be the fourth Indian prime minister to visit the kingdom after Dr. Manmohan Singh in 2010, Indira Ghandi in 1982 and Jawaharlal Nehru back in 1956. He is expected to meet with King Salman bin Abdulaziz, the crown prince, the deputy crown prince and other senior officials to discuss the strengthening of bilateral ties, and collaborative efforts on both the economic and security levels.

For the Saudis, India has been a “good neighbor… for thousands of years,” and is facing the same threats to its security and stability as Saudi Arabia, Al Jubeir had said during his trip. He added that such challenges can be turned “into opportunities,” for collaboration.

The “Saudi-Indian ties have been good. But under Modi, they will take a positive leap forward,” says MJ Akbar, the spokesman of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In January 2006, the late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz visited New Delhi as the guest of honor at India’s Republic Day Parade, where he said he considered himself to be in his “second home –India!” During that trip, the king signed the “Delhi Declaration” Saudi Arabia’s  first such agreement with another country.

With rising regional and international security concerns, Modi and the Saudi officials will likely focus on further boosting security cooperation during his visit. The two countries began such collaboration during Singh’s second term (2009-14), when India sought intelligence from Arab Gulf countries after the 2008 Mumbai serial attacks.

Both nations had signed a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation in 2014, during Salman’s visit to India when he was defense minister. Since then, Saudi Arabia has extradited several Indian nationals for their alleged involvement in terrorist attacks. Modi and Salman have also met twice before on the sidelines of the last two G-20 meetings in Brisbane, Australia, and Antalya, Turkey.

India is also seeking Saudi Arabia’s support for its draft Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT). Recently, it appointed Ahmed Javed, a former Mumbai police commissioner, as its new ambassador to the kingdom. This was regarded by many as a bid to pursue closer security ties with the Gulf state. It further highlights India’s interest in cooperating with Arab countries to cut routes used to fund terrorism, amid concerns that Daesh is trying to expand its influence into South Asia.

And with a shift in global trade and geopolitical environment from the West to the East, Saudi Arabia today considers India as not only a strategic economic partner, but also as a potential ‘bridging power’ that can play a constructive role for regional peace and stability.

However, while India’s ties with the Arab world are booming, there is some anxiety that the growing Saudi-Iranian tension might hurt its strategic interests in the region.

But Indian officials are unfazed. External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup says India enjoys friendly relations with both countries and hopes that they will be able to resolve their differences in a peaceful manner. “The prime minister was invited to visit Iran by President Hassan Rouhani… He will visit Tehran once mutually convenient dates are worked out,” Swarup told Newsweek Middle East.

Talmiz Ahmad, a specialist on Middle Eastern affairs and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman, said: “Modi goes to Saudi Arabia at a time of an extraordinary uncertainty in the region.

“The direct confrontation between the two leading powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, who are engaged in two proxy wars; the mobilization of the sectarian divide to serve immediate political interests; the proliferation of jihadi forces, and the collapse of oil prices, all of these taken together have created an environment of extraordinary turmoil and violence across the Middle East,” he added.

Ahmad believes that Saudi Arabia is likely to seek India’s support to promote stability in the region. “India is both well-equipped and prepared for such a role. India has crucial and abiding interests in the region in the shape of its energy security, its economic stakes and the welfare of its eight million-strong community, these can only be sustained when the region is stable and at peace.”

A future cooperation initiative, as envisaged by Ahmad, will involve India working closely with other Asian countries that share an interest in regional peace and stability, such as China, Japan and South Korea. “I am convinced that such a role will be welcomed by the countries of the region. A discussion on ‘next steps’ in shaping this Asian challenge should lie at the heart of Prime Minister Modi’s mission to Riyadh and later to Tehran.”

However, MK Bhadrakumar, India’s former ambassador to Turkey, disagrees.

“Any upheaval in that region will have adverse fallouts for India. We need to be discreet by insulating ourselves from the ‘hotspots’ in that region. We have no reason to get mixed up with the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The regional alignments are in flux, the tectonic plates are shifting,” he said.

“The Saudis have now floated a NATO-like military alliance of Islamic countries to take on [Daesh], and the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has just stopped short of warning against the Saudis buying a nuclear bomb from Pakistan. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev spoke openly about it. [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama has called Arab sheikhs ‘free riders,’ [as] the Saudis have spun out of American control. They have taken decisions in intervening in Bahrain and Yemen, and in backing extremist groups in Syria,” Bhadrakumar said.

Away from security and regional alliances, economic ties and attracting investments to India’s infrastructure and development projects continue to be a priority for Modi. His previous visits to the Arab Gulf region were fruitful. During his visit to Abu Dhabi last August, Modi wangled an assurance for $75 billion worth of investments in India.

His trip to Saudi Arabia is expected to broker the same kind of investment deals, after all, the kingdom is one of India’s top trading partners, and the country has ample opportunities to offer Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth largest trade partner, with bilateral trade totaling $40 billion in 2014-2015.

Last year, India surpassed Japan to become the world’s third largest oil importer after the United States and China. Nearly one fifth of India’s oil imports come from Saudi Arabia, which holds 18 percent of the world’s proven petroleum reserves and is the world’s top oil exporter according to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The kingdom is also India’s top oil supplier.

Also on Modi’s agenda is the status of India’s nearly 3 million nationals, who form the largest expatriate community in Saudi Arabia and outside of India, and many of whom are doctors, bankers, engineers, and teachers.

There are 8 million Indians working in the six Arab Gulf countries: Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. They send home about $40 billion of the $70 billion, in annual remittances from Indian expats.

Recently, the Saudi General Investment Authority (SAGIA) licensed 426 Indian companies to start joint ventures—100 percent owned entities—bringing total Indian investments in Saudi Arabia to about $1.6 billion.

One of India’s leading conglomerates, Tata Motors, is also said to be exploring the possibility of building its third largest assembly plant for Land Rover vehicles in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, while Tata Steel won an order to supply high-quality rails for a new high speed rail line linking the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

And more investments deals are expected to be brokered between the two countries following Modi’s visit.

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