India and Saudi Arabia: Past, present and future
As Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman begins his visit to India, it is worth recalling that both countries have a deep-rooted and diverse relationship It has grown over the centuries and, though it has had ups and downs, its hallmark has been a shared vision and understanding of important global and regional issues.
The geostrategic position of Saudi Arabia makes it an important neighbor for India, with trade and cultural links dating back thousands of years.
Despite some challenges during the 20th century, the bilateral relationship has blossomed again. Despite visits by King Saud to India in 1955 and India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to Saudi Arabia a year later, political relations failed to develop much until more recently, when leaders from both countries decided to increase cooperation as part of a strategic partnership covering security, economics, defense and politics.
The two governments have been working to develop two-way business agreements, bearing in mind the vast potential of the Indian market and the expertise it can offer as the Kingdom, with its immense financial resources, seeks to diversify its economy.
The most tangible example of this was the establishment of an Indo-Saudi joint commission to promote economic and technical collaboration, inspired by the idea that technology and a skilled workforce from India could be combined with Saudi money to strengthen cooperation. This has yielded tremendous economic gains in the past 25 years, forcing a rethink on political matters.
Saudi Arabia is now India’s fourth-largest trade partner, after China, the US and the UAE. It is a major source of energy, as we import about 19 percent of our crude oil requirement from the Kingdom. The value of bilateral trade during 2015-16 was $26.71 billion, a drop from $39.27 billion in 2014-15, according to figures from the Directorate General of Foreign Trade.
India and Saudi Arabia have pledged to strengthen their strategic partnership and enhance bilateral trade to reflect the size and potential of their economies. To this end, they have invited the private sector and the Saudi-India Business Council to increase efforts to take advantage of the investment opportunities offered by both countries. They emphasized the importance of developing a broad-based economic partnership that reflects the ongoing transformation of their economies and the transformation in the global economic order; India’s increasing requirement for crude oil; and identifying and implementing projects for cooperation in the areas of new and renewable energy, among others.
Indians in Saudi Arabia are the second-largest providers of remittances to their home country. They are also an important aspect of our soft-power diplomacy in the region. During the recent drive toward Saudization of the workforce in the Kingdom, as a result of which a number of expatriates have lost their jobs, special measures were put in place for Indian workers to mitigate the effects, in recognition of the mutual importance of bilateral relations.
The groundwork for the visit by King Abdullah to India began soon after Indian Finance Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 1994. On Jan. 24, 2006, the Saudi king arrived in New Delhi and was personally welcomed by Singh, who had by then become prime minister. The two men held one-on-one talks and their discussions covered a range of issues, including a review of bilateral relations and India’s relationship with its neighbors.
Four agreements were signed, covering the fight against crime, avoiding double taxation, the promotion and protection of bilateral investment, and cooperation in the fields of youth and sport.
The king’s four-day visit ended with the signing of the Delhi Declaration on Jan. 27. It was the first joint declaration signed by a Saudi king in which the two countries agreed to expand bilateral cooperation and work closely together to fight terrorism and other transnational crimes, including money laundering, drug trafficking and arms smuggling.
Prime Minister Singh’s three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, which began on Feb. 27, 2010, was the first visit to the Kingdom by an Indian prime minister since 1982 and only the third up to that time.
During his visit, Singh addressed the Shoura Council, a privilege described as “a singular honor,” and received an honorary doctorate from King Saud University (KSU). In addition, a memorandum of understanding for cooperation was signed by the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and KSU in the presence of the prime minister. An extradition treaty was signed by Indian Health and Family Welfare Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi Arabian second deputy prime minister and interior minister.
Four other agreements were also signed, pertaining to the transfer of sentenced persons, cultural cooperation, a memorandum of understanding between the Indian Space Research Organization and King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology for cooperation in peaceful space exploration, and joint research in information technology.
India and Saudi Arabia have increasingly been turning their attention toward renewable sources of energy
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia, which began on April 2, 2016, further reinforced the relationship between the two nations. The prime minister received a ceremonial welcome, led by the governor of Riyadh, Prince Faisal bin Bandar. Modi held wide-ranging talks with King Salman, to whom he presented a gold-plated replica of the Cheraman Juma Mosque in Kerala.
The visit strengthened the relationship, building on the Delhi Declaration of 2006 and the Riyadh Declaration of 2010. It emphasized the importance of issues such as trade, investment, terrorism and strengthening strategic ties. Increased security cooperation led to the signing of agreements on intelligence sharing and terror financing.
As a result of the enhanced cooperation in recent years, bilateral trade has significantly increased. India intends to further promote trade and widen its scope, particularly in the non-oil sectors. Modi, during his visit to Riyadh, encouraged further investment by Saudi Arabia in India. Saudi interest in investing in India’s infrastructure sector was also made clear during Modi’s visit.
Energy remains a pivotal factor in Indo-Saudi relations, as Saudi Arabia is the largest oil supplier to India. Modi’s visit further developed this relationship, with Saudi Arabia agreeing to deepen ties in energy infrastructure and undertake joint ventures in the energy sector. This was a significant step forward toward building a strategic energy partnership with the Kingdom.
Recently, India and Saudi Arabia have increasingly been turning their attention toward renewable sources of energy, to meet growing needs and reduce carbon emissions. India initiated the International Solar Alliance, in which a large number of countries participate, and Saudi Arabia is looking to develop the opportunities this sector offers. We should engage with each other to mutually benefit from this.
Additionally, the roles of both countries as power centers in their respective geographical regions mean that they share a number of other common interests, including the fight against terrorism, battling poverty, educational exchanges, and investment.
We should, therefore, be focusing on strengthening this bilateral relationship and taking it to new heights.
• Akhtarul Wasey is an Islamic scholar and president of Maulana Azad University in Jodhpur, Rajasthan.