Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid is known all too well for his eloquence. He is suave and never shies away from fielding the difficult questions. He is forthright. He does not consider Nitaqat and its impact on Indians a hot-button issue.
“You have completely misread the situation. Saudi Arabia is implementing its domestic laws. If they have not done it in the past, then those working here were lucky. Now that this is the case, everyone needs to comply with their domestic laws.”
In an exclusive interview with Siraj Wahab of Arab News at the Conference Palace in Jeddah yesterday, Khurshid said India considers Saudi Arabia a center of stability in the region, adding that the security and stability of the Gulf region and that of the Indian Subcontinent are interlinked and that bilateral security cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia can contribute to regional stability.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
Can you tell us about the talks that you have had with senior Saudi officials, including Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal?
Saudi Arabia is one of India’s most valued strategic partners. My visit is part of high-level exchanges that we maintain regularly as partners in peace, stability and prosperity. This is my first bilateral visit to Saudi Arabia as foreign minister, though I have been to the Kingdom earlier in different capacities. I had fruitful meetings with Crown Prince Salman, Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Prince Muqrin, Interior Minister Mohammed bin Naif and Labor Minister Adel Fakeih. I also delivered a personal letter from our prime minister to Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah.
Has the visit laid a solid foundation for the two countries to take the relationship to a new level?
The directions are very clear. We need to fine-tune the steps that we can meaningfully take. It is necessary, therefore, that we have more extensive two-way visits at the highest level. India considers Saudi Arabia a center of stability in the region. The security and stability of the Gulf region and that of the Indian Subcontinent are interlinked. Bilateral security cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia will contribute to regional stability and in addressing the common threat of terrorism in the region.
You did not seem very vocal on the Syrian issue at the joint press conference on Saturday with Prince Saud Al-Faisal. Are there any points of divergence between the two countries?
It would be the same kind of divergence if you ask me about the car that you drive and the car that I drive. It is simply a different model. The Arabs here live next door to Syria. They have to see to a lot of factors that confront them in this region. We are a little bit farther away and we therefore have a different perspective. Moreover, we must keep in mind the standard positions that India holds. We have said this at the UN, and I think everyone accepts that in principle there shouldn’t be an external dictation of how a country should rearrange itself. There are different ways of recognizing the aspirations and the opinions of the people themselves and creating conditions conducive for their own good. We have remained consistent in this regard. We don’t expect everybody to fall in line with us. The objective may be common, but strategies and methodologies may vary from place to place. We support the objective but we only come on board to the extent of our capacity and in terms of our philosophy. We were not part of the coalition of the willing in Afghanistan, were we? Afghanistan remains the highest priority for us. We are fully committed to Afghanistan and we will remain in Afghanistan to help them in any way they wish. Our objectives (in Syria) are in line with Saudi Arabia. There must be free expression of the aspirations of the people and there must be an immediate cessation of violence. On this, we are very categorical. Our position is very clear. We support the UN effort and we support the Geneva effort. It has not succeeded thus far. Now that there is a conference, there seems to be greater convergence between Russia and the US. We would like to see how that works out.
Stretching the car metaphor a little further, is it fair to say then that while the models remain different, the ultimate destination is the same?
The people of Syria must find their voice. That is the Saudi position and our position as well. That is what Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said on Saturday.
India is said to have an equidistant policy vis-à-vis Riyadh and Tehran...
I don’t know where this equidistance has come from. We have a natural relationship with Saudi Arabia and we have a natural friendship with Iran. We also have a commonality of energy security with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran is closer to India and, in a sense, Iran impacts a larger neighborhood of India, whereas Saudi Arabia is a friend in an area where there is a huge presence of Indians. In that sense, Saudi Arabia is a distant neighbor whereas Iran is closer neighbor. Then there are next-door neighbors such as China. The position that you have with each country will dictate priorities and the fine-tuning of policies. We have differences with Iran on the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). We voted against Iran (at the UN). At the same time, we believe that Iran has the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and that is what the Saudi foreign minister also emphasized very categorically. We don’t accept that Iran should violate the NPT and weaponize. Saudis say that they shouldn’t weaponize, and the Iranians themselves say that they don’t want to weaponize. So where is the difference?
With tensions rising between Saudi Arabia and Iran, what is India’s wish?
I would prefer there to be no conflict. Differences of opinion can be resolved through dialogue. I think everybody supports that view. I don’t think there is anyone who would want to encourage conflict and confrontation. There are many events unfolding in the region. This includes the outcome of the Arab Spring, the spillover of weapons from one state to another, such as what we saw in Mali, for instance. There are also attempts to support and sustain the change that has taken place in Yemen and also to ensure that Bahrain remains stable. I think all these are different dimensions that we need to understand. For us, the priority is, of course, our own region. Afghanistan is our priority. We believe that all stakeholders, including Saudi Arabia, must be able to contribute to a peaceful solution. Your immediate priority should be your immediate neighborhood. We understand that. It is important that we understand why each one of us is giving priority to the immediate neighborhood, not because we think the others are unimportant. The big picture is something on which there is tremendous convergence between Saudi Arabia and ourselves. And, that was reflected in my conversations with the Saudi leadership.
What is the status of the agreement that was signed to swap prisoners, which calls for all Indian prisoners languishing in Saudi jails to be repatriated to India to serve their prison terms.
In 2010, we had signed the agreement on transfer of sentenced persons with a view of rehabilitating them socially and psychologically. Both sides are now discussing the modalities for implementing this agreement which will go a long way in addressing the issue of Indian prisoners in Saudi Arabia.
India has close bilateral ties with Israel. Arab states, including the key Gulf allies of India, are not comfortable with that. How do you manage these contradictions?
Our relationship with Israel came into existence in 1992, much after some of the Arab countries had established ties with Israel. Our relationship with Israel is independent of our ties with Islamic countries. India has strong and historic ties with the Arab world the key Gulf allies understand that our relationship with Israel does not impact on their own relationship. India firmly believes that all states in the region, including Israel, should have the right to exist in peace within secure boundaries.
There is a new government that is taking over in Pakistan and the prime minister in the waiting, Nawaz Sharif, has made all the right gestures, hasn’t he?
It is a good beginning. He has sent all the right signals.
Including the release of Indian fishermen languishing in Pakistani jails ....?
Well, the release of the fishermen was already in the pipeline. It was a good signal. Obviously, he (Sharif) is the prime minister in waiting so he would have been consulted. I think the signals that he gave during his campaign and also subsequently his response to the Indian prime minister’s call .... all these are important signals, but they must not remain mere cosmetic, must not remain window-dressing. We have to go to the heart of the matter. I think we can only expect that he will first settle down as prime minister, his government will settle down, and then they will take up issues which are of important concern to us which we believe if addressed in an appropriate manner could open up tremendous opportunities.
The hot-button issue here is Nitaqat ...
No, not at all. I think this issue is misunderstood. One should look at it proportionately. We must comply with the domestic laws of this country just like we would expect our laws to be respected. If there was a period in which there was no insistence on compliance, well, we were lucky that there wasn’t. If there is an insistence on compliance now, there is a reason. It is not that they don’t want Indians. They have repeatedly said that they are very happy with the services that Indians are providing, both in terms of quality and conduct. They have also given us a grace period. We are processing all the candidates. They have also given opportunities for the people to switch jobs and regularize their work and continue to work here. So it is only those who can’t switch due to lack of employment opportunity without incurring any penalties. I don’t think you can expect any greater generosity than this. And then it leaves the opportunities open for fresh people to come here, provided there is demand and they have the proper papers. I think rationalizing, regularizing and sorting out the ambiguities is something that we should welcome. Some responsibility also falls upon us as well to do some handholding, to ensure that those going back home are resettled in India, and then when the opportunity arises they can come back. Meanwhile, I am confident that once this is sorted out the demand for workers will continue and, therefore, more people from India can legitimately come. And add to the legitimate work force here.
Speaking of hand-holding, is your government doing anything to rehabilitate those forced to go back?
This must be done by state governments. I have spoken to chief ministers and I am sure they will take care of them.
Why can’t the federal government do anything?
The Central Government can only give money to state governments through the Finance Commission and through different schemes.
You are an integral part of the ruling Congress party. Is there a possibility of early general elections because of your party’s good performance in the recent elections in Karnataka?
The elections should take place as scheduled. Why should we give up the time that we have. It is like asking somebody who is playing a five-day test match to turn it into a three-day match. This is a test match, not T-20. Elections come periodically. And no elections are a last word for any political party. You will win a few, and you will lose a few. Every election is a learning experience. Somehow some people think that the election they win is the last election and the election they lose is not the last election. In democracy, every election is a learning process. You learn from every election, the one that you win and the one that you lose. And then you prepare for the next one.