RIYADH: Saudi Arabia and India are approaching their relationship keeping in mind the larger global context, Dr. S. Jaishankar told Arab News in an exclusive interview during his first official visit to the Kingdom as the external affairs minister of India.
“In a world that has seen the COVID-19 pandemic, conflicts such as the ongoing one in Ukraine, or indeed climate events, it is essential that our relationship become a growing factor of stability. This is good for us, good for the region and good for the world.”
He added: “The objective of both countries is to identify complementarities that enable us to expand our cooperation as rapidly as possible. It would require collaborative activities, mutual investments, coordinated policies and greater mobility.”
Relations between Saudi Arabia and India have been historically strong, with Indians constituting the largest community of foreign workers in the Kingdom and one of their home country’s biggest sources of inward remittances. Some 200,000 pilgrims from India, where Islam is the second largest religion, traveled to Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj before the pandemic in 2019.
For its part, Saudi Arabia has consistently been among the top three suppliers of energy to India, the world’s third-biggest oil-importing and consuming nation. The two are also members of the G20 intergovernmental forum as well as the Non-Aligned Movement.
In recent years, relations between Saudi Arabia and India have expanded into other fields, notably security, trade, investment, health, food security, culture and defense. The two governments remained in close touch during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are important players in the emerging multipolar world order and there are several areas in which both our countries are working together,” Jaishankar said. “India is a large economy and our focus remains on economic growth and development of 1.3 billion plus people of India. This also gives a great opportunity for Saudi Arabia to make investments in India and work together with us for the mutual benefit of both countries.”
Elaborating on this crucial aspect of the Saudi-India relationship, Jaishankar said: “India and Saudi Arabia are major economies and play an important role in shaping the global economy. The two countries are substantial economic partners, with trade being valued at approximately $ 42.86 billion during the fiscal year (April 2021 to March 2022).”
He continued: “This partnership plays a stabilizing role in the region. The two countries share several synergies in the economic domain. For instance, the two are crucial energy partners and there is immense scope for increasing two-way investment.”
He added: “Energy has been a pillar of our cooperation for several decades. We not only want to build further on this but also extend it to the field of renewables including ‘green’ hydrogen.”
A career diplomat who served as India’s foreign secretary before his induction into the cabinet in 2019, Jaishankar gives credit to “the vision and guidance provided by (Indian) Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman” for the strengthening of the Saudi-India relationship.
“Their respective visits in 2019 to Saudi Arabia and India provided great momentum to the bilateral relationship and that continued despite the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic,” he said.
“These visits led to the formation of the crucial Saudi Arabia-India Strategic Partnership Council, which reflects the mutual desire of both countries to upgrade the level of this relationship. Today our bilateral partnership covers nearly all areas of cooperation, including political, security, defense, economic, energy, cultural and people-to-people ties.”
On Monday, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received Jaishankar in Jeddah. During the meeting, he handed over a letter from the Indian prime minister to the crown prince.
The previous day, Jaishankar co-chaired with his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the inaugural ministerial meeting in Riyadh of the Committee on Political, Security, Social and Cultural Cooperation, established under the framework of the Strategic Partnership Council.
Explaining the functioning of the bilateral body, he said: “Formed in October 2019, the Strategic Partnership Council has two sub-committees. The first is the Committee on PSSC and the second is the Committee on Economy and Investments.
“The current ministerial meeting for which I have come (to Saudi Arabia) is of the Committee on PSSC, which focuses on several important areas of bilateral cooperation and has four joint working groups.
“The joint working groups focus on bilateral cooperation in political and consular, legal and security, social and cultural, and defense domains. The agenda for this ministerial meeting would cover all these areas.”
Jaishankar expressed satisfaction over the rise in Saudi foreign direct investments in India from less than $50 million in 2014 to about $3.15 billion at present. “A lot of large Indian companies are also engaged in business in Saudi Arabia. We have furthered our cooperation in areas like health security, food security, education and technology,” he said.
“Our cooperation during the pandemic taught us important lessons on health security and supply chains. We can build on this experience to be better ready to tackle such challenges in future. Both our countries can also collaborate in the Kingdom’s Vision 2030, where the Kingdom can benefit from India’s skilled manpower, entrepreneurs and technology.”
According to Jaishankar, in view of the above “synergies, one of the verticals of the Strategic Partnership Council focuses on economy and investments. The four joint working groups under this sub-committee have discussed cooperation in the fields of agriculture and food security, energy, technology and information technology, and industry and infrastructure.”
During their meetings, Prince Faisal and Jaishankar undertook a comprehensive review of the bilateral relationship and discussed the progress under the four joint working groups of the Committee on PSSC. The two sides are understood to have also discussed regional and international issues of mutual interest, including their cooperation at the UN, G20 and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
“India considers the Gulf region as its extended neighborhood and that naturally means shared interests with Saudi Arabia in the fields of security and defense. We have been constantly strengthening our cooperation in these fields in the spirit of our strategic partnership,” Jaishankar said.
“On defense, we have had exchange of visits at the level of army commanders in the past two years and we also had our first joint naval exercise last year. Our Joint Committee on Defense Cooperation met a few months back and identified further areas of cooperation. The Indian defense industry provides exciting opportunities for co-production and investments and that is one area where we hope to make more progress with Saudi Arabia.”
Highlighting the importance of security cooperation between the two governments, he said: “India has been a victim of cross border terrorism for decades. Saudi Arabia has had its own challenges and experiences.
“As terrorism knows no borders or religion and is a menace to humanity, it is but natural that India and Saudi Arabia come together to jointly tackle the threats facing our respective countries by intelligence sharing, developing new technologies, keeping abreast with the modus operandi of terrorists, and by working together in international organizations like the UN and FATF.”
According to Jaishankar, there exists a good working relationship “at the highest levels of the security architecture of both countries” on the matter of countering terrorist threats. “Further, under the framework of the Strategic Partnership Council, the two countries have constituted a joint working group on legal and security cooperation to collaborate in this field,” he said.
“In the domain of maritime security, both India and Saudi Arabia have a special interest given our long coastlines and commercial interests. We have a shared objective in keeping the sea lanes of communication open and ensuring that international law is respected.”
Jaishankar noted with satisfaction the increased naval cooperation between Saudi Arabia and India, pointing out that “our ships have done operational turnarounds in Saudi Arabia while Saudi Arabia participated in the multi-nation exercise MILAN 2022 at Vishakhapatnam in February 2022.”
He added: “Besides these ship visits, exchange of information in the maritime domain and other training activities are also continuing. Overall, I see good momentum in our economic, energy, security and defense ties and am confident of good progress in coming years.”
Looking ahead, Jaishankar expressed hope that his meetings and the forthcoming visit of fellow cabinet minister Piyush Goyal, in charge of commerce and industry, would prepare the ground for a meeting in the near future of Saudi and Indian leaders. “We believe that the meeting of the Strategic Partnership Council mechanism will be more productive as a consequence of these preparations,” he said.
During his stay in Riyadh, Jaishankar met other Saudi dignitaries as well as Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf, the secretary general of the GCC. Together with Indian embassy officials, he also visited the cultural sites of Diriyah, Salwa Palace and Diriyah gallery.