India-Saudi Arabia bonding: What catalysed closer ties between the world’s largest democracy and the Kingdom

October 16, 2019 3:17 PM

Terrorism, investment, energy, skill development, security and the 3.2 million Indian diasporas are the new age founding blocks for a renewed phase of proximity-based on greater political engagements and strengthening of trade ties.

India-Saudi Arabia bonding, Iran, Ministry of External Affairs, Riyadh Declaration, india saudi arabia ties, Middle East policy, pakistanThe two countries also intend to discuss other investment opportunities worth US$26 billion in the Project. (Photo: PIB via PTI/File)

By Aziz Haider

Bilateral relations between India and Saudi Arabia, which were largely inhibited during the Cold War period due to the Pakistan factor, have grown leaps and bounds in recent years with both the countries exploring the importance and value of one another.

Terrorism, investment, energy, skill development, security and the 3.2 million Indian diasporas are the new age founding blocks for a renewed phase of proximity-based on greater political engagements and strengthening of trade ties.

Significant growth of India’s economic power and influence coupled with de-hyphenation of Pakistan from its Middle East policy has led the relations far ahead from days when expatriate population and Haj were the backbone of relations, and have led to deeper engagements with the Kingdom through investments opportunities, political contacts, shared security concerns and strategic cooperation.

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Though the challenges are still many! Regional instability, the Iran factor and India’s attempt to balance the relations with both adversaries, low oil prices and the constantly changing international dynamics at times create roadblocks, but the two sides are conscious and know of each other’s importance and reliance on each other.

Since coming to office, Mohammad bin Salman, popularly known as MBS, has chalked out an ambitious Vision 2030 program, which aims at doing away with oil-based dependence and developing infrastructure for generating income through other industries including investments, tourism and entertainment. As part of this endeavour, this writer was instrumental in building a delegation of Indian infrastructure, housing and entertainment companies, headed by a Joint Secretary level officer of Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), which travelled to Riyadh seeking a share in the pie of the huge developmental projects in the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia is developing its Red Sea coastline for tourism purposes on lines of Dubai and is also seeking Indian investments in developing a vibrant entertainment industry; this also includes an amusement hub near Riyadh, called Qiddiya entertainment city. An Indian company is already coming up with over 300 cinemas in the Kingdom.

Several Indian delegations have in recent past also thronged Riyadh and other Saudi cities, seeking investment and trade opportunities in areas like processed food, agri-produce, petrochemicals, etc.

Ausaf Sayeed, formerly the High Commissioner of India to the Republic of Seychelles and now India’s Ambassador to Riyadh, owing to the fact that he is an experienced and seasoned career diplomat has been able to bring a fresh lease of warmth in the ties through proactively engaging in road-shows and events, often frequented by the rich and influential Saudi princes and key officials.

The warmth in the relations between the two countries was also felt when Saudi Arabia became one of the first countries to condemn the Pulwama terror attack and Prime Minister Modi discarded protocol to personally receive the Crown Prince at the airport.

As part of his 2030 objectives of diversifying its economy and promoting economic stability through long term investments, the Crown Prince during his visit to India highlighted his intention to invest more than US$ 100 billion in India in the areas of refining, petrochemicals, infrastructure, agriculture, minerals and mining, manufacturing, education and health. Five MoUs were signed related to investment, tourism, housing, and information and broadcasting.

A MoU was also signed to enable Saudi investments in the National Investment and Infrastructure Fund (NIIF) for the building of roads, ports, airports, power, etc. Furthermore, the Saudi Arabia General Investment Authority (SAGIA), signed a Framework cooperation program with Invest India to facilitate investment by the private sector and the establishment of joint ventures in the fields of petrochemical industries, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment.

Saudi Arabia has pledged to invest heavily in Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd (RRPL) and is also exploring the possibility of a US$10 billion investment through the Public Investment Fund and the technology partners of RRPL. The two countries also intend to discuss other investment opportunities worth US$26 billion in the Project.

Going back in history, the India-Saudi Arabia ties entered into an era of a strategic partnership with the signing of the Riyadh Declaration in 2010, followed by the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on defence cooperation in 2014. The visit of MBS further fortified the partnership by establishing a high-level monitoring mechanism in the form of the Strategic Partnership Council.

Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth-largest trading partner after the US, China and the UAE. About 20% of India’s energy needs come through Saudi Arabia. With huge dependence on the Persian Gulf for its energy security, India is aware that any the escalation in the prevailing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran or any further disturbance in the Middle East could lead to a surge in oil prices, and thus having a destabilizing effect on its economy.

India today has a never before the relationship with Israel. Saudi Arabia too has grown in proximity with Israel since MBS took to office. And the recent broadening of the relationship between India and Saudi Arabia, which have come a long way from being mere transactional business relations to evolving into a strategic partnership, has resulted in a bond of fraternity and mutual cooperation between the three countries, through shared geopolitical and business interests. With both Narendra Modi and Mohammad bin Salman sharing a personal bond, it is hoped this strategic partnership will reach new heights in the future.

(The author is an independent analyst writing on trade and bilateral relations. Views expressed are personal.)

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