Script: Dr. MOHD. MUDDASSIR QUAMAR, Strategic Analyst on West Asia
Saudi Arabia has emerged as India’s trusted partner in the Gulf and West Asia. Deft diplomacy coupled with high-level political engagements has elevated the bilateral relations to a strategic partnership. Economic engagements, oil trade, energy security and the flow of Indian human resources to the Kingdom form the backbone of this partnership. In recent years, it has expanded to include the two-way flow of investments and close security and defence cooperation, especially in the counter-terrorism domain.
Defence cooperation has emerged as a major component of bilateral relations. Maritime security is an important area of cooperation and there is a greater momentum towards enhancing military-to-military ties. India has opened its military training schools for Saudi officers and cadets. Joint military exercises between the two armed forces are on the anvil. Last December, in a historic first, the Chief of Defence Staff (COAS) of the Indian Army visited Saudi Arabia and held talks with his Saudi counterpart to further enhance cooperation between the two land forces. There are discussions on tapping the potentials for cooperation in the defence manufacturing and the defence industry as well.
Besides, New Delhi and Riyadh have developed a greater political understanding on issues of mutual interest including regional security and stability in West and South Asia. Both have also been supportive of each other on their national security issues. Riyadh had also condemned the attacks on Indian security personnel in Jammu and Kashmir including the Pulwama attack in 2019. India has constantly expressed its condemnation of the drone and missile attacks on civilian and oil infrastructures in Saudi Arabia by Yemeni rebels. In 2015, Indian and Saudi agencies cooperated to rescue Indian and other nationals stranded in the conflict zone in Yemen.
The growing friendship is visible in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the outbreak in early 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held three telephonic conversations with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to assess the prevailing situation and device ways to manage and neutralise the health and economic impacts of the pandemic. This led to Saudi authorities facilitating the return of stranded Indian migrants through the Vande Bharat mission. In February 2021, India facilitated the export of 3 million doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine from the Pune-based Serum Institute of India (SII) to Saudi Arabia.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman held telephonic talks recently. The two leaders “reviewed the functioning of the bilateral Strategic Partnership Council established in 2019.” They expressed their pleasure in the “steady growth” in bilateral ties. Prime Minister Modi invited the Crown Prince to visit India at an early date. The two leaders also expressed the “desire to further expand trade and investment between the two countries.”
Underlining the priority of reviving the economy to its pre-pandemic growth level at the earliest, the Indian Prime Minister highlighted the opportunities that the Indian economy offers to Saudi investors. The bilateral flow of investments has emerged as one of the key areas of cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia. During his visit to India in February 2019, Crown Prince Mohammed had announced that Saudi Arabia will invest US$100 billion in the thriving Indian market. In a related development, in June 2020, Reliance Industries, India’s leading business conglomerate, announced that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world, is acquiring a 2.32 per cent stake in its telecommunication arm, Jio Platforms, with an investment of US$1.5 billion.
India supported the Saudi initiatives as Chair of the G20 grouping to collectively fight the COVID-19 pandemic including the call for helping the weaker and poorer states in vaccinating their population. Prime Minister Modi attended the virtual G20 summit in November 2020 sharing his views on “an inclusive, resilient, and sustainable recovery from the COVID-19.”
India and Saudi Arabia have converging interests not only for national and regional security but also for the social and economic wellbeing of their citizens. Both have initiated long term reform programmes, such as Saudi Vision 2030 and India’s “Make in India” and ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, to expedite economic growth and improve the livelihood of their peoples. It is in this spirit of serving the people and the “special friendship” that Prime Minister Modi and Crown Prince Mohammed “agreed to continue supporting each other’s efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic.”