By Arab News
By Sanjay Kumar
India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar held talks with his Saudi counterpart on Sunday that included measures to bolster bilateral and trade ties, cope with COVID-19 challenges, and a “very useful” exchange on political developments in Afghanistan.
Saudi Arabia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah Al-Saud arrived in New Delhi for a two-day visit on Saturday and is expected to call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday.
It marks the first high-level ministerial visit by a Saudi official to India since the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent travel curbs early last year.
“(It) was a cordial and productive meeting with (the) Saudi foreign minister,” Jaishankar said in a Twitter post on Sunday after the meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi.
Prince Faisal’s visit comes amid the recent political changes in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s return to power last month, marking the first official interaction between the two allies.
“Very useful exchange of views on Afghanistan, the Gulf and the Indo-Pacific,” Jaishankar said.
No further details were available, but experts termed the timing of the meeting and Prince Faisal’s visit as “a very significant one.”
As the Taliban surrounded the Afghan capital, Kabul, on Aug. 15, President Ashraf Ghani, with whom New Delhi had cultivated a close relationship, fled Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, the Taliban announced an interim government, weeks after taking over Afghanistan in a stunning military sweep, as US-led foreign forces withdrew after 20 years — ending the country’s longest conflict.
“Saudi Arabia and India have shared concerns as to whether Afghanistan will become the sanctuary for extremists because then it would become extremely dangerous for the neighborhood as a whole,” Talmiz Ahmad, former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told Arab News.
“It’s natural that both the close partners would discuss Afghanistan. It reflects very close relations that India and Saudi Arabia have established with each other.”
Ahmad cited the “strategic partnership” formed after signing the Riyadh Declaration of 2010 and taken forward “very vigorously” by Prime Minister Modi as the first step toward bringing the two countries closer.
“We now have a strategic council at the apex level. Therefore, the relationship that began with cooperation on counter-terrorism has now become a very strong and deep strategic partnership,” he said.
The two officials also reviewed progress in implementing the Strategic Partnership Council Agreement, signed during PM Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia in October 2019, and bilateral cooperation at multilateral forums such as the UN, the G20 and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Jaishankar congratulated Prince Faisal for Saudi Arabia’s successful presidency of the G20 last year, at the pandemic’s peak, a statement by India’s Foreign Ministry said.
“Both sides discussed further steps to strengthen their partnership in trade, investment, energy, defense, security, culture, consular issues, health care and human resources,” it added.
The foreign ministers also agreed to “work closely” to deal with pandemic-related challenges, with Jaishankar thanking Saudi “for the support provided to the Indian community during the COVID-19 pandemic,” urging the Kingdom to relax travel restrictions for visitors from India further.
In July, Riyadh imposed a travel ban on 13 countries, including India, to curb the spread of the coronavirus and its new variants, but removed the UAE, Argentina and South Africa from the list and re-allowed citizens to travel to the three countries starting Sept. 8.
According to Indian foreign ministry data, more than 2 million Indians are living and working in the Kingdom, employed in various sectors of the Gulf state. However, the COVID-19 pandemic rendered thousands jobless, with a majority unable to return to work due to travel curbs.
Jaishankar urged an early resumption of direct flights to Saudi Arabia while both nations “agreed to work closely on all COVID-19 related challenges.”
In April and May, Saudi supplied more than 140 tons of medical oxygen to Indian to help the South Asian nation tide over a health crisis amid a deadly second wave of the coronavirus that claimed the lives of more than 400,000 in a country of 1.36 billion people.