Saturday, October 23, 2021

New Delhi-Riyadh: Going Beyond Transactional Relations

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia this week highlights the changes that are taking place in India’s policy towards Riyadh and its potential benefits. Traditionally, the Haj pilgrimage and energy imports formed the basis of the relations; but in recent years both countries have been working to transform the relations beyond the transactional aspect.

Prime Minister Modi’s keynote address at the third ‘Future Investment Initiative’ (FII) organised by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, more commonly known as MbS, is a significant step in this direction. Also known as “Davos in the Desert”, the FII seeks to showcase the economic opportunities in the Kingdom for investments in the non-oil sectors such as non-conventional energy, knowledge economy, tourism, and entertainment towards reducing Saudi dependence upon the oil sector. These initiatives under the leadership of the Crown Prince are in sync with Prime Minister Modi’s desire to transform India into a US$ 5 trillion economy by 2024.

The visit is part of India’s growing engagements with Saudi Arabia. This was the eighth meeting between the two leaderhips since Prime Minister Modi took office in 2014; sixth with the Crown Prince and the third this year and the first since the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir; that heightened Pakistan’s diplomatic offensive with the Arab and Islamic countries in the Middle East and beyond.

Though the desire to push forward the bilateral relations was flagged in the ‘Delhi Declaration’ issued during the visit of King Abdullah to India in 2006, progress has been slow or at least had been until recently. The Saudi desire to invest in a petrochemical refinery in Maharashtra and the willingness of Aramco—the world’s largest oil company—to buy a US$ 15 billion stake in Reliance are the tangible signs of Riyadh’s desire to the transform the bilateral ties.

During the visit, Prime Minister Modi met a host of Saudi leaders, including King Salman, whom he had first met during the Brisbane G-20 summit in November 2014 when the King was the Crown Prince. Since then, Mr. Modi has met the Saudi monarch thrice, the last one being during the Indian Prime Minister’s April 2016 visit to the Kingdom.

The joint statement issued at the end of the Prime Minister’s visit, significantly reiterates the commitment of both the countries of “their categorical rejection of all forms of interference in the internal affairs of countries and the need for the international community to fulfil its responsibilities towards preventing any attacks on the sovereignty of States.” The diplomatic implications are obvious; cross border terrorism facing India and drone attacks on Saudi oil installations and the need for the international community to respond adequately.  

A key highlight of the visit was the establishment of the Strategic Partnership Council headed by the Indian Prime Minister and the Saudi Crown Prince. This means that the apex leaders would be meeting regularly to shepherd the bilateral relations.

A dozen agreements were signed covering a host of issues including energy, civil aviation, security cooperation, defence, and regulation of medical products. The Indian Prime Minister also launched the ‘RuPay’ card in Saudi Arabia. The joint statement flagged traditional issues like support for the Palestinian cause. On foreign policy, both leaders discussed Yemen, which is of grave concern to the Kingdom. The Syrian issue was also deliberated upon. 

Prime Minister Modi described India’s energy infrastructure as a potential target of Saudi investment and mentioned the figure of US$ 100 billion in the next few years. The visit thus, has set the stage for a robust economic and strategic engagement between the two countries, especially in terms of India’s strategic oil reserves and petrochemical plants, both in public and private sectors. The decisive outcome of the Prime Minister’s Riyadh visit will be measured by the ability of both the countries to walk the talk and deliver results within a short span of time.

Script: Prof. P R Kumaraswamy, Centre for West Asian Studies, JNU

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