By Aditi Paul and Pramod Jaiswal*
Having met with King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in 2014 in Brisbane, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is making his first official visit to Saudi Arabia on April 2-3, 2016. This official visit happens after Dr. Manmohan Singh, the former Indian Prime Minster, went to Riyadh in 2010 and marked a significant turn in India’s strategic bilateral relations that had been rather lukewarm since the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s visit in 1982.
This short visit of Modi is no less important and seeks to improve India-Saudi Arabia relations and reignite the cooperation in bilateral, regional and global areas of concern. Riding high is the procurement of India’s energy supplies from the oil-rich kingdom. Energy security among other key areas of collaboration like defence, security, culture and Indian community, are significant areas of India’s functional relationship with the Gulf region; all of which got concretized in 2006 when the late King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz visited New Delhi and signed a strategic energy partnership agreement.
Since 1947, when the diplomatic relations were laid by the exchange of high-level visits from both the sides, dialogues on energy cooperation have met with keen interest. Besides, being the 4th largest trading partner of India, Saudi Arabia accounts for one-fifth of India’s total crude oil import. Conversely, India is the 5th largest market for its total exports and accounts for 9.26 per cent of its total exports.
The bilateral foreign direct investments have also seen a steady rise in India-Saudi economic relations. Since 2000, several joint ventures have been established in the Kingdom and around 426 licenses have been issued to the Indian companies which accounts for over 1.6 billion USD in Saudi Arabia. The investments have been made in arrange of development sectors like construction, telecommunication, information technology, pharmaceuticals, consultancy, financial services, etc.
King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, the former Defence Minister of Saudi Arabia, visited India in 2014 and signed MoU on defence cooperation and laid the foundation for India-Saudi defence security. Both partners share views on issues like defence and security especially when fight against terrorism is a pressing concern in Saudi Arabia and talks on nuclear terrorism form the agenda for the upcoming 4th Nuclear Security Summit of which India and Saudi Arabia are the participants. Efforts to build trust was evident when Abu Jundal, linked with the 2008 Mumbai attacks, was deported after it was confirmed that he was carrying a Pakistani passport and living in Saudi Arabia. And the recent landing of the fighter aircraft from India at the King Fahd military airbase, Taif reinforces the defence ties.
The relation between the two countries is way beyond oil. Though India is not a Muslim-majority country, it still hosts the second-largest Muslim population in the world, a constituency that remains interested in the holy shrines at Mecca and Medina. There is already significant cultural interchange. This is where religion and culture play an important role of soft diplomacy. It is also the reason why India-Saudi Arabia youth forums have been organized for people to people contact and recall the socio-cultural affinities. Similarly, Haj forms a crucial link between India and Saudi Arabia cultural relations. Over three lakh (300,000) Indians go for Umrah and Haj annually. Ministerial discussions take place over its smooth continuance.
Moreover, Modi’s interaction with the large Indian Diaspora residing in Saudi Arabia is intended to reunite and ensure their wellbeing. Around 3 million Indians are in Saudi Arabia and over 8 million in totality reside in the Gulf region. Modi’s visit includes engagements that span over different sections of the society. For instance, he will be interacting with the business leaders and labourers from L&T Electrical and Automation Saudi Arabia Company Limited dealing with the construction of Riyadh’s metropolitan projects and residential complexes. He is also going to interact with the employees of the Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). TCS is Saudi’s first all-women BPO center and has become a connecting bridge in India-Saudi relations as it is a powerful sign of woman empowerment.
Amidst the volatile scenario of the Syrian crisis, war in Yemen and Iran-Saudi rivalry on the one hand and emerging power of Chinese influence on the other, India needs to secure a place and safeguard its national interests. While reports may make rounds on what happens to the money from India, for instance, it is argued that “the billions it earns from oil, the country (Saudi Arabia) spends billions buying weapons from the West” and that the Saudi is home to gross human rights violations, Modi’s visit mustn’t hesitate at reigniting the harmonious bilateralism that India has with Saudi Arabia in economic, political and security areas. Modi should let the long history of cordial relations established by Jawaharlal Nehru and shaped by Delhi and Riyadh Declarations make a steady growth. Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar’s “Think West” notion prioritizes India to promote economic interdependence with the Gulf countries not just to meet India’s energy requirements but to foster collaboration and attract increased investments to realise the incumbent government’s flagship initiative – Make in India.
The relationship between India-Saudi Arabia has not reached its potential. Hence, it is expected that Modi’s visit would cement stronger ties in the core sectors such as economic and trade ties, defence and security ties. It is in the interest of both the nations to work mutually for strengthening their relations. They need to work with new vigour if they are to strengthen the present level of ties, which is not comprehensive in nature as of now, in order to impart strategic character. The new dynamism in the partnership will enable both the countries to harness the vast potential of bilateral relations, drawing upon complementarities and each other’s intrinsic strengths, and work together to address regional and global challenges. Both the countries will have new level of engagement in days to come.
*Aditi Paul is Research Scholar at Nelson Mandela Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia and Dr Pramod Jaiswal is Senior Research Officer at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. They can be reached at: [email protected]