Arab News: You have spent a large number of your diplomatic years in the region, and especially in Saudi Arabia. Can you please tell us about the significant changes that you have noticed in the Arab world?
Talmiz Ahmad: Let me restrict myself to the countries of the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula where I have been posted since 1976. The GCC countries have witnessed remarkable changes in every area. The most obvious changes have been in regard to the development of the infrastructure and welfare services. Every country today has transport and communications systems and educational and health facilities that are of world standard, and national economies that are well - integrated with global economic structures and institutions. The energy sector obviously constitutes the basis of these extraordinary transformations. Hence, this sector has progressed most remarkably, with the GCC countries now home to major national oil companies capable of exploration initiatives and high value downstream projects based on state-of-the-art technologies. Beyond the physical and economic changes, very significant progress has been seen in regard to the educational standards and professional qualifications of the people themselves, who today are making substantial contributions at regional and international fora where political, economic, sociological and cultural issues are being debated. The GCC countries are today poised to develop as knowledge societies of world standard on the basis of their economic and professional achievements.
AN: Saudi Arabia has become a key player on the world stage. It is now a G20 member. India has also become a top player on the world stage and a G20 member. Is there any synchronization of foreign policies of the two countries?
Ahmad: Indo-Saudi relations have been progressing quite significantly. First, in the last 30 years, the presence of the Indian community has expanded steadily so that, today, numbering two million, it is the largest expatriate community in the country, with Indians represented in every area of economic endeavor. Secondly, Saudi Arabia has now emerged as India's principal source of petroleum, meeting about 18 percent of our oil imports, even as Saudi Arabia is India's fourth largest trade partner, with two-way trade valued at $25.6 billion in 2010-11. Thirdly, the presence of Indian enterprises in the Kingdom has increased to well over 500, with a capital value of over $2 billion. However, the area that has seen the most significant progress is that of political engagement. This commenced in recent years with the visit of His Majesty King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz to India in January 2006, as the chief guest at our Republic Day celebration, and culminated with the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Riyadh in February-March 2010. The "Riyadh Declaration," signed during their visit, speaks of "a new era of strategic partnership" and commits the two countries to pursue this partnership on the basis of the expansion of ties in political, economic, defense and cultural areas. India and Saudi Arabia have been brought together by a common interest in regional and international stability and shared concerns relating to extremist threats in the region. This has encouraged the two countries to engage in dialogue at different levels and to develop common strategies to combat the scourge of terror. The two countries are also in dialogue in regard to the expansion of ties in the defense area, as evidenced by the recent visit of Indian Defense Minister A.K. Anthony to Riyadh. The membership of the two countries of the G20 has also given them an opportunity to consult with each other and develop common solutions to the global economic crisis, and generally the need to reform the iniquitous world order.
AN: You have spent considerable time in Riyadh. Can you tell us about your impressions of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah?
Ahmad: During my two postings as the Indian ambassador in Saudi Arabia between 2000-2003 and 2010-11, I was privileged to meet His Majesty on a few occasions and, at firsthand, witness his remarkable role in promoting the progress of his country and the Saudi people. The king has been a powerful exponent and exemplar of moderation in state policy and conduct. He has been advocating for several years the need for accommodation and tolerance between people belonging to different faiths, and is today a recognized leader supporting the global dialogue of civilizations. Domestically, he has been in the forefront of the country's economic development and has ensured that Saudi Arabia has enterprises in energy, infrastructure, industry and services that are of world standard. Above all, he has been in the vanguard of social progress to ensure that the modern Saudis, men and women, while drawing strength from their cultural roots, are comfortable in the modern global milieu and able to make a substantial contribution in the global dialogue on various issues of international interest.
AN: Your book, "Children of Abraham at War," was hailed as a top-class research work. What was it all about? And what was the reaction from the Saudi/Arab intelligentsia?
Ahmad: My book, "Children of Abraham at War," was published in September 2010. It was an investigation into the root causes of animosity and violence between followers of the three principal Abrahamic faiths. I have argued that these visceral animosities originate in Messianism which is common to the three faiths, and historically and contemporaneously, has been used to seek the total annihilation of the "Other" on the basis of divine sanction. The book evoked considerable interest in Saudi Arabia, with many people, Saudi writers, foreign diplomats and Indian nationals, expressing curiosity about Messianism and its role in determining the "cosmic war" advocated by its adherents.
AN: Is its translation in Arabic in the works?
Ahmad: The book has been translated into Arabic by the Indo-Arab Cultural Center, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. I understand that the translation is of high standard.
AN: Besides being a diplomat, you are known as an expert of oil. What is your assessment of the current oil scene?
Ahmad: The current oil scenario is in a state of turbulence and uncertainty. This is due to factors operating at two levels: One, the various geopolitical factors that are making a daily impact on oil supplies and prices, and, two, the long-term changes that are effecting fundamental transformations in the world energy scenario.
The ongoing geopolitical factors are the impact of the Arab Spring in oil producing countries and the sanctions on Iran which have severely restricted the sale of Iranian oil and the ability of different consumers to engage in financial transactions with that country.
While, as of now, the actual demand - supply scenario is reasonably comfortable, the concerns generated by talk of confrontation and possible conflict do influence the global energy markets. However, the long-term changes will impact on the world energy scenario for the next two or three decades. These changes include: Significant increase in hydrocarbon demand in Asia so that two-thirds of Gulf oil is now being consumed in Asia as against just 25 percent about 20 years ago; Technological advances that have enabled companies to obtain increased oil supplies from old fields as also to prospect for oil in difficult terrain such as the deep sea and the Arctic areas; Technology (and high oil prices) have also made it possible to explore for oil in new areas such as Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa, East Africa, the Bay of Bengal and the Latin American offshore; Above all, technology has enabled us to obtain hydrocarbon supplies from unconventional sources, particularly shale oil and gas, which have had the effect of significantly reducing the US oil and gas imports, and are likely to make it self-sufficient in terms of its energy requirements. Given the above trends, the global energy economy, within this decade itself, will be quite different from what it was over the last 20 years.
AN: It was said that this was to be the Asian Century, but all pointers indicate that this is still the American Century? Americans are still the single most important factor in the world of diplomacy? What is your take on it?
Ahmad: Frankly, I am not particularly impressed with terminologies such as "American Century" and "Asian Century." These are gross oversimplifications and frequently misrepresent the true picture. For instance, the US was certainly a powerful and influential role player in the second half of the 20th century. However, for much of this period, it competed with the Soviet Union for influence and had its own debacles in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Over the last 20 years or so, even though the Soviet empire has collapsed, new centers of influence have emerged, particularly on the basis of economic achievement, such as the BRICS countries. The difficulties the US has faced in Iraq and Afghanistan and generally in the so-called global war on terror, suggest that the 21st century will also not see the exercise of untrammeled power by any single country or grouping. In fact, the threats and challenges that we face in this century are often global in character such as climate change, natural disasters, desertification, energy security, food and water scarcity, problems pertaining to women and the girl child and, above all, the scourge of poverty; or emerge from unorganized non-state actors such as religious extremism and violence, terror and piracy. All of these demand global cooperative action rather than competitions and confrontations between countries or blocs. That said, there is no doubt that the countries that constitute the so-called "West" continue to see themselves as a privileged entity, and frequently do operate in a unified manner to maintain their positions of influence through their domination of world institutions such as the United Nations and its various organs, the World Bank, IMF, WTO, etc. In fact, Western countries at times promulgate domestic legislation that is intended to influence the policies of countries outside their bloc. This situation is often referred to as "neo-imperialism," which unfortunately remains a robust factor in world affairs. I do believe that such Western insistence on retaining its primacy in world affairs will be increasingly challenged by "outsider" countries from Asia, Africa and Latin America, which will set up coalitions to challenge Western domination and subserve their own interests. In fact, with the BRICS countries now beginning to take joint positions on political issues, we just might witness a grouping that would in time challenge Western hegemony and encourage the principal Western countries to play a more responsible role in cooperation with other countries. What we are looking at, therefore, is not so much an "Asian Century" but a more equitous, cooperative and accommodative world order.