India-Saudi Arabia Relations towards Strategic Partnership

Four-days long historic visit (January 24-27) of the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz to India on the auspicious occasion of India’s Republic Day on January 26 heralds a new era of Indo-Saudi relations. It is the second visit of its kind after 1955. India has warmly welcomed him as the Chief Guest on the Republic Day televised live throughout India. Such a reception shows India’s sincere hands of friendship and partnership in various fields of mutual interests and in the interests of regional and world peace. Before reaching India, the King has urged both India and Pakistan to settle their differences peacefully. He also suggested for the Observer Status to India in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Such remarks clearly show keen interests of the Saudi administration to maintain and enhance ties with India.

On the other hand, the King has also said to maintain its ties with the US. King Abdullah is on an important mission to visit four countries–”China, India, Malaysia and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia has signed a big deal with China on energy on January 24. Before his arrival, Indian Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahmad, on January 23, described his visit as “important and historic”. Indian Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Mani Shankar Aiyar expressed interest seeking Aramco’s participation in the refinery project of Hindutan Petroleum in Visakhapatnam (in the state of Andhra Pradesh). India needs foreign investment for its further developments. Like the Saudis, Indian Government is moving ahead with economic reform (with the expectation of growth rate to 8%) without rejecting its social agenda.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the Congress delegates in Hyderabad on January 23, that India must be rid of chronic poverty and steps must be taken to protect the interests of workers, weavers, minorities and the weaker sections. The Federal Governmant headed by Singh accords priority to National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005, National Rural Health Mission, National Urban Renewal Mission, Rural Electrification Programme including the Bharat Nirman. The Bharat Nirman Programme consists of six components–”irrigation, roads, housing, drinking water, electricity and telecommunication to be further added by sanitation and maintenance of sewage system. It is in this context of a mixed bag of national developmental concerns and international market pressures of global capitalist forces that the Saudi investment in India would be the most preferred choice due to its non-imperialistic heritage and objectives.

Fact-sheet of Saudis’ Impressions

The King is accompanied by 25-Member High-Level Delegation, which includes Ministers for Foreign Affairs, Oil, Finance, Commerce, Labour, Culture and Information. There are many positive signals of various new agreements in the area of energy deal, investments, joint ventures, and combating terrorism. As an appetizer to the signing of the agreements, three important visits were made by Saudis within a week of the King’s visit. A 17- member Saudi Civil Delegation consisting of Saudi journalists, businessmen, academicians and IT experts headed by Professor Rashad M. Husein arrived at New Delhi on January 18 as its first ever visit to India, which visited several educational institutions in the capital. He is also the Vice-President of South Asian Pilgrims Establishment, Makkah. He said, “We are here with open hearts and mind with extended hands”. Women delegates belonged to academics, journalism, and Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Ms. Fatin I.M. Hussain has written a book on the Saudi women Haj Guides (Mutawwaffa). Dr. Ms. Afaf J. Khogeer, is working on women issues in India and Saudi Arabia. She is also collecting short stories written by Indian women. Both of them have said that Islam does not suppress women but it is the male dominant culture, which restricts their freedom in all parts of the world. In other words, equality and freedom of women are basically sociological issues.

One of its members, Mr. Hani I. Khoja said that we should not seen as stereo-typed extremist or fundamentalist State. We are coming up economically, industrially and educationally. Progress made in the last thirty years has created many cities, ports and other developed areas”. To him, power of Islam lies in diversity and India has a good chance of establishing dialogue between the Muslim Ummah and the rest of the world. The King’s visit is the result of a ‘selective choice’. India has developed democracy and rich diversities. To him, there are conflicts within India but they are healthy in nature. To Ms. Nimah I. Nawwab, a poet and journalist, said that India is role model for diversity for many. Dr. Abdul Fattah S. Mashat, heading the IT center in King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah has shown his keen interest in collaboration with IITs and IT institutions in India.

Ms. Somayya A. Jabarti of Arab News said that the Saudi press is developing like others in the field of internal assessment. Saudi press has provided a viable platform to many Saudi nationals to evaluate the role of their ministers. Women issues are coming up in the press. To Mr. Zahid Talal, India lives in Saudi Arabia and we live in India. He was portraying long Saudi experiences of India workers, experts, and relations including food and culture. Mr. Majid Batterji of AMB group said that he has learnt a lot from Indians in marketing sector. He has very opinion for Indian engineers and technicians. A leading marketing expert, Ousamah T. Aldeghather said that they want to learn about India at the base level and to portray Saudi society to the Indians with many positive signs. They are here to portray the image of India to the Saudis. In a press meet on January 23, they told in the press meeting that they appreciate India as a role model due to its continental diversities, booming economy, and democratic developments. There are two more fresh developments in the context of Indo-Saudi ties. Pargati Maidan in New Delhi hosted the grand exhibition of over 34 Saudi business houses during January 21-26. Moreover, a huge group representing 120 Saudi companies reached New Delhi on January 25 to participate in the Indo-Saudi Joint Business Council meeting.

Beyond status quo

This is to recall that India participated in international conference on counter terrorism held in Riyadh February 2005. Few months later, the Saudi government established International Counter-Terrorism Centre. Last April, Indian Finance Minister P. Chidambaram visited Riyadh followed by the visit of the Indian Minister for Petroleum & Natural Gas in March. In June 2005, India and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement on the training of diplomats and exchange of information and expertise. As a result of such efforts, both India and Saudi Arabia have penetrated into economic ties, which would expand tremendously after the recent joining of KSA with the WTO.

There are 106 Indo-Saudi companies. Some 50 joint ventures exist in India. Saudi company Al-Babtain Power & Telecommunication Company is supplying highway lighting products to India for the last eight years. Similarly Saudi company–”Amiantit located at Goa supplies fuel tanks and fiberglass pipes to India and outside. Saudi Arabia is to seek Indian help from ONGC, IOC, GAIL, etc., in exploration of huge Saudi oil reserves. Indian Ministry of Petroleum has a list of proposals–”inviting Saudi investments in the refineries sector. India wants KSA to participate in gas exploration projects in the upstream sector. It also wants to participate in the downstream refineries in KSA. India is also planning to set up Engineers India Limited office in oil rich countries for monitoring refinery projects. India is importing over 26 percent of its oil requirements only from Saudi Arabia. In 2004, it bought Saudi crude worth $ 6.2 billion. Indo-Saudi bilateral cooperation includes non-crude sector, manpower, joint commission, Indo-Saudi Joint Business Council, Bilateral Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement, science and technology, training of agricultural experts, and Medicare sectors. India has become 4th largest trading partner for Saudi Arabia: The value of the two-way trade between the two countries in 2003-2004 exceeded US$ 6.63 billion. Saudi Arabia is the 15th largest market in the world for Indian exports.

It is an emerging fact that the trend of Indo-Saudi relations is undergoing a major shift from a period of ‘normalisation’ to a ‘strategic and decisive phase’. This shift further depends upon the ‘maturity’ of their mutual trust and will to deepen their tendencies for ‘interdependence’, ‘coordination’ and ‘reciprocity’ at various levels. Unlike Turkey, Saudi Arabia has chosen to broaden its window towards its east without any compromise over its ties with the west. While Saudi has long been closer to the US, it also wants to promote relations with emerging Asian countries. Indian Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru had visited the Kingdom in 1956 and Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1982. The then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh visited Riyadh in 1994. Shift towards strategic partnership became more evident after India’s Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh and his Saudi counterpart Saud Al-Faisal declared after their meeting on 20 January 2001 that Israel should abide by the ‘Land for Peace’ formula and Madrid conference principles and UN Security Council Resolutions. Similarly on 8 September 2002, both countries jointly opposed a possible US armed strikes on Iraq. On King’s visit, there are possibilities of agreements on combating terrorism, double tax avoidance treaty and bilateral promotion proposals. On January 25, the King Abdullah talked to the Indian Prime Minister. There are mainly two major economic concerns between the two countries–”Indian participation in Saudi oil projects, and Saudi investment in Indian oil storage & refinery plants.

Strategic partnership seems to be realistic due to certain silver linings. History of trade and cultural relations between India and KSA is well documented. Saudi hosts lakhs of Indian pilgrims for Umra and Haj. There are at least 1.6 million Indian expatriates in KSA who add on Indian foreign reserves. Both have advanced towards market economy. There is no hostility at the people level. Both the governments have shown their preparedness for building better ties. Saudis are highly impressed by stable democratic consolidation of India. On the other hand, KSA is taken several measures towards good governance, decentralisation and human rights. On January 23, Naushad in Saudi jail was pardoned due to the forgiveness expressed by the victim Saudi national. Saudi King has prioritised many internal reforms and developments mainly to reduce poverty, unemployment and other needs of the people at the periphery. KSA has also taken several initiatives to resolve the Palestinian problem based on international legality. Recently the Mecca Declaration echoed Saudis’ serious appeal to the whole world that Islam seeks peace and Muslims should reject terrorism. Moreover, geographical contiguity, soci-cultural commonalities, commercial mutualities and political peace between India and KSA can sprout the seed of strategic partnership.