By Ranjit Gupta*
Some contextual background is essential to properly appreciate the significance of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 02-03 April 2016 Saudi Arabia visit.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have had a particularly special one-of-a-kind relationship since the beginning of the 1970s, the nature of which has no similarity with any other bilateral relationship in the world. Given this reality, there was little or no scope for India to develop any meaningful relationship with Saudi Arabia at its initiative. Something had to happen to impel Riyadh to look beyond Islamabad to New Delhi towards developing bilateral relations grounded in mutual benefit and advantage, consciously skirting the Pakistani factor.
Over the past decade, Pakistan has increasingly degenerated into terrorism-infused instability. 2015 in particular witnessed deep strains in the special Riyadh-Islamabad bilateral. This was due to a very public and emphatic rejection of Saudi requests for Pakistani troops towards the former’s military involvement in Yemen, as well as the latter’s ambivalence towards the Saudi-created Sunni Islamic alliance.
On the other hand, over the same period, India’s economy has been growing strongly and it was being courted by countries around the world. In terms of purchasing power parity, India is now the world’s third-largest economy, and credible international entities and analysts are predicting that India could become the third-largest economy in absolute terms by 2030 and even the largest, by 2050.
Energy is key for this to happen and sooner rather than later, India will need to import up to 90 per cent for its growing oil and gas requirements. Most of this will come from the Gulf region. Since 2005, Saudi Arabia has been India’s largest oil supplier. Oil producers are facing enormous competition to maintain market share. India offers Saudi Arabia an assured, large and growing market in closer geographical proximity, and logistically the most hassle free destination than any other customer. Saudi Arabia has been India’s fourth largest trading partner for some years now with bilateral trade having increased by an incredible nine times in the past decade. India’s trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries has witnessed the fastest growth rate in comparison to its trade any other region.
8 million Indians live and work in the GCC countries, the largest expatriate group by far in each of the six GCC countries. There are over three million Indians in Saudi Arabia, making the Indian community there the largest Indian passport-holding population in any country in the world.
Anticipating such developments, the visionary King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had chosen India as the second country to visit after ascending the throne. Saudi kings do not personally sign joint statements with foreign leaders. In 2006, however, in a very special gesture, he signed the ‘New Delhi Declaration’ with former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi, and later, the ‘Riyadh Declaration’ in 2010, when Singh paid a return visit to Riyadh. It is worth noting that the King spent almost four days in India – compared to a little less than two days in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia’s particularly special friend. There was nothing remotely comparable to the ‘Delhi Declaration’ in the mundane agreements that were signed with Pakistan.
An MoU on defence cooperation was signed in 2014 when King Salman as the Crown Prince had visited India.
A particularly welcome feature has been the excellent and expanding anti-terrorism cooperation extended by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the best that India receives world-wide. The US and Saudi Arabia jointly imposed sanctions on individuals linked to Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba on the very eve of Modi’s visit. It may be recalled that in 2012, Riyadh repatriated Abu Jundal and Fasih Mohamed to India. The issue of terrorism features particularly prominently in the April 2016 Joint Statement.
Additionally, there exist no bilaterally contentious issues. The 2006 Delhi Declaration, the 2010 Riyadh Declaration, the 2014 MoU on Defence Cooperation, and the 2016 Joint Statement issued at the end of Prime Minister Modi’s visit are documents that deserve to be read very carefully. They lay out in great detail the multi-dimensional nature of the evolving bilateral relationship between Saudi Arabia and India. The Joint Statement commends “the successful transformation of bilateral relationship in political, economic, security, defence, manpower and people to people exchanges, in recent years, which have enriched bilateral ties,” placing particularly heavy emphasis on defence, security and counter terrorism cooperation in all its multifarious dimensions.
Significantly, “the two leaders agreed to transform the buyer-seller relationship in the energy-sector to one of deeper partnership focusing on investment and joint ventures in petrochemical complexes, and cooperation in joint exploration in India, Saudi Arabia and in third countries…(and underlined) .. the importance of energy security as a key pillar of the strategic partnership.” After meeting, Prime Minister Khalid Al Falih, Chairman, ARAMCO Board, said it looks at India as “its most preferred investment destination.”
All this becomes even more noteworthy because India and Saudi Arabia/UAE have sharply different perceptions regarding current conflicts in West Asia; both sides have very consciously prevented these differences coming in the way of continuing to upgrade the already excellent bilateral relations. The New Delhi-Riyadh bilateral is no longer hostage to any other relationship that either may have with any third country.
In the context of current circumstances, that India has 180 million Muslims – the third largest in the world and the least radicalised – is an extremely positive factor that cannot be ignored by any West Asian country. Hopefully, Prime Minister Modi will pay early visits to Iran and Israel too.
In fact, with the possible exception of China, no country in the world has simultaneously excellent bilateral relations with Iran, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and the UAE as India has. All these countries are in West Asia and are India’s best bilateral relationships (excepting Bhutan) in the world despite the fact that, overall, West Asia is going through its worst ever period in its long blood soaked history.
**It may be useful to also read the author’s 06 October 2015 and 02 June 2014 entries to his IPCS column – Spotlight West Asia – titled ‘Prime Minister Modi finally begins his interaction with West Asia’; and ‘Looking West: Bridging the Gulf with the GCC‘, respectively.
* Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India