SAUD BIN MOHAMMED AL-SATI: India and Saudi Arabia have an old friendship. We share cultural ties and heritage. There are a few main pillars of the relationship between the two countries — trade, investment, energy cooperation, security cooperation and the relationship we share because of the large Muslim community here. We facilitate many of their visa applications and welcome them to Saudi Arabia. This is a very important dimension of the relationship. We also have very good security and defense cooperation. Also, terrorism is a common threat to both the countries and we have very solid cooperation in this area. Saudi Arabia will be hosting India as its guest of honor for the national heritage festival to be held in February. It is a special event which will also celebrate the strength of our relationship and the crucial ties we share and cherish.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: There are several social changes taking place in your kingdom — women have been allowed to drive, movie theatres are opening etc. Many would argue that these changes were long overdue. Do you agree? And why are these changes happening now?
Well, maybe the pace at which we are introducing reforms has accelerated. But the fact of the matter is that Saudi Arabia is all about building the country and reforming the government. We started reforming our country from scratch in the 1950s. We had a very small number of educational institutions and hospitals in our capital and even in Jeddah, our second largest city. We were determined to use our resources for the benefit of the country. We started with urban planning and focused on building institutions — schools, hospitals, roads, airports — all with a special focus on the welfare of our society. In the past 50 years, we also undertook some very ambitious reforms. In 2006, the government started a robust programme to streamline government institutions, which would then introduce reforms, upgrade our systems etc. It included education and community participation. Our people and women were given special attention (during this programme).
Women were given the right to vote in our municipal elections a few years ago. They were also given the right to run for office. Women were nominated to the council assembly of Saudi Arabia. We have 38 women members in the council. They represent 30% of the members. Their membership is full and they are participating robustly in the working of our councils. We have women appointed as heads of academic institutions, dean of medicine schools. A few months ago, a woman was appointed as head of Saudi Arabia’s marketing. Now we see more women participating in the private sector, achieving and fulfilling their dreams.
Also, women are going abroad to pursue their education — 25% of students from Saudi Arabia studying in foreign universities are women. They have won scholarships based on their merit and grades. We are part of the UN council working on women’s empowerment, which was started last year. We have seen a 131% increase in women’s participation in the private sector. They represent 30% of the workforce in the private sector. We are working very ambitiously for 2030, with the aim of diversifying our economy and enriching it. We are opening up areas of our economy to help people find jobs. We are focusing on tourism. Every ministry is working towards the transformation of specific areas and a national transition plan towards achieving the 2030 vision.
In 2011, we established an anti-corruption body in Saudi Arabia. Two years ago, the leadership of the country also emphasised that corruption would be curbed and measures would be taken to ensure efficient use of resources.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: The recent anti-corruption crackdown — when 11 princes were detained, including one of the richest persons in Saudi Arabia — was seen by many as Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s efforts to get rid of his potential rivals within the royal family.
As I mentioned earlier, the anti-corruption measures were introduced in 2011 and we took action in 2015. We will take action against any misuse of resources of the country. The prosecutor was collecting information and investigating the cases as per the mandate by the anti-corruption commission. Now a new body has been established and given the authority to pursue the investigation as per the laws of the kingdom. We don’t announce the names of the people who are being investigated.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: So there is no vendetta involved?
No. It’s a straight-forward process.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: There are approximately 2.5 million Indian workers in Saudi Arabia. In light of the Nitaqat scheme, there have been concerns about a lot of them losing their jobs. How do you view these concerns?
The Nitaqat programme has nothing to do with any particular nationality. It is a programme to encourage companies and factories in Saudi Arabia to hire more Saudis. (Under the scheme, only organisations with high grades — based on the number of Saudi nationals employed by them and some other criteria — will be able to apply for new block visas for migrant employees.) We haven’t seen any decrease in the number of Indians working in Saudi Arabia. If anything, the numbers are increasing and, only last year, we noticed that an additional 2,00,000 Indians arrived for work in the country. Your embassy tweeted just two or three weeks ago that Saudi Arabia remains the best, and the most favourable, destination for Indian professionals and workers. Now we have over 3.2 million Indian nationals working in Saudi Arabia. We look at them as partners, as doctors who treat our patients, as managers who manage our establishments, as nurses who help in treating our patients, and as professors who teach our students.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: In the wider Middle East region, the Saudi kingdom has been engaged in a battle of influence with Iran. Cutting off diplomatic ties with Qatar, the intervention in Yemen… are these manifestations of the influence battle? Have they been hurried misadventures?
It is not a battle of influence. This is an issue of them (Iran) interfering in our internal affairs — whether it is Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen… It is not an issue of competition, what we see is a country that is pursuing an expansionist foreign policy approach. It is an issue of applying radical ideas, and it concerns us.
In Yemen, they (Iran) have backed, funded and trained terrorists. The latest action (where a rocket was shot towards Saudi’s Riyadh airport, allegedly by Iran-backed Houthi rebels) shows their criminal thinking. This is the nature of the group that Iran supports. We would like Iran to refrain from interfering in our internal affairs and respect its neighbours. (Yemen has been locked in a war between forces loyal to the internationally recognised government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and those allied to the Houthi rebel movement. While a Saudi-led multinational coalition backs the president, the Houthi rebels allegedly have Iran’s support).
MUZAMIL JALEEL: Do you think the Iran-Saudi Arabia tussle will take Lebanon back to its days of turmoil and chaos?
We have to call a spade a spade. The country that is intervening in Lebanon is not Saudi Arabia, it is Iran. The country that is creating and publicly funding a coup situation, that is undercutting the efforts of the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, is Iran; it’s not Saudi Arabia. This was one of the main reasons for the resignation of the Prime Minister. (Lebanon is largely divided between those loyal to Saudi Arabia — led by Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Hariri — and those with Iran and Hezbollah. After stepping down in November, Hariri withdrew his resignation on December 12).
Prime Minister Hariri has blamed Iranian intervention for his resignation. He had urged Iran in September last year and in April this year to stop causing instability in the region. This is his position.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: The bigger reason for the tussle between Iran and Saudi Arabia is about emerging as the leader of the Muslim world. Does Saudi Arabia still see itself in the leadership role or has it changed in any way?
When it comes to the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia is the cradle of Islam. Saudi Arabia hosts the two holy shrines of Mecca and Medina. Millions of Muslims from all around the world visit these sites to fulfill their religious duties. Our Muslim brothers have expectations from us and we are very committed to serving Muslims from all around the world without any distinctions of nationality or ethnicity. Also, when it comes to leading Muslim nations in terms of economy, trade and investment… we have not seen any major development projects from Iran. What we have seen is them exporting radicalism in our region. I have not seen any major constructive project being marketed (by Iran) in our part of the world. What we have seen is an attempt to destabilise the region.
Saudi Arabia is about cooperation with all Muslim countries. We have a remarkable development institution called the Saudi Arabia Development Fund, through which we facilitate economic development in several Muslim countries. The King Salman Centre for Humanitarian Aid and Relief conducts humanitarian projects in many countries. So, the contrast (between Iran and Saudi Arabia) is clear.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: Recently, when the United States officially declared Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, there was just one statement from Saudi Arabia. How can you ally with a country which is considered unfair towards Muslims by many in the region?
We issued a very strong statement before the American President made the announcement. Even after the announcement was made, we expressed deep regret. We asked the (US) administration to reverse the decision. We took a strong collective decision at a meeting of the Arab nations, which rejected the American decision.
We are the biggest supporter of the Palestinian cause. It is top priority for our country, as it is for Arabs and Muslims all around the world. We are actively engaged in trying to find a solution to the issue.
RAVISH TIWARI: The world is closely watching the rise of China. It has also started playing some role in a few conflicts in the Middle East. What is the position of Saudi Arabia on China, and what is the impact of its rise in the region?
I am the ambassador of Saudi Arabia to India. I cannot speak about the bilateral relationship (with another country).
RAVISH TIWARI: How does Saudi Arabia intend to tackle the threat from Islamic State (IS)?
The IS is the biggest enemy of Islam. They have attacked facilities inside the kingdom, they have attacked our mosques. We have taken many measures to fight them. We participated in the international air campaign on Daesh locations in Syria. We will continue our fight and campaign against them. I have no doubt that the terrorists will be eradicated; we have seen the eradication in Iraq. The terrorist groups will be defeated. It needs international cooperation — not only physical and military— but also financial. Fighting their mindset is equally important.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: When PM Modi visited Saudi Arabia, detailed conversations were held on counter-terrorism and defence cooperation. What has been the progress since then?
It’s going well. The two nations have close cooperation in fighting terrorism. It is a common threat to both the countries, to the region and the international community, and we are cooperating in the area.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Tell us a bit about your Crown Prince. He is 32 and is taking some big reform decisions. He is also in charge of foreign policy. What is his vision? He has mentioned in his interviews his decision to diversify from oil to other sectors.
That decision was made publicly by the Crown Prince. It is bringing development to Saudi Arabia. India is our fourth largest trading partner, and Indian companies are taking advantage of the economic and investment opportunities available in the kingdom. All the big Indian companies and power houses are represented in Saudi Arabia and ‘Vision 2030’ will bring about more investment opportunities as we expand our economy and build new cities, airports, seaports etc.
AAKASH JOSHI: Some of the reforms introduced by Prince Salman concern religion and society. In October, the Crown Prince said at a conference that Saudi Arabia needs to go back to moderate Islam. Later, in an interview to The Guardian, he said that all the extremism in Saudi Arabia of the past 30 years stems from the Iranian revolution and how Iran has been since then. Where does the route to moderate Islam lie — is it about Iran, or is there a need to look inward, as the Crown Prince suggested earlier?
The 1979 revolution brought about a radical regime in Iran. Since then, not just Saudi Arabia, but several other countries have expressed their concern — they took action by closing Iranian embassies and cultural centres because of their activities. They were not respecting diplomatic norms and sovereignty of the countries they had relations with and had embassies in. I can share with you a 2006 list which has 58 cases in which Iran either got directly involved in terrorist activities, or through its proxies attacked embassies and diplomats.
When it comes to dealing with the threat of extremism and radicalism, Saudi Arabia has taken strong internal initiatives. We have emphasised the message of tolerance and acceptance through comprehensive programmes in schools, universities, mosques etc. We have established a centre for national dialogue in Saudi Arabia for spreading the principles of moderation. In 2008, Saudi Arabia hosted the Islamic Summit of scholars and prominent Muslim figures, and its focus was fighting extremism and bringing about moderation. We have taken several initiatives to promote (religious) understanding and tolerance.