India’s tryst with Saudi Arabia dates back to nearly five millennia when Indian sailors and merchants made regular forays into the Arabian peninsula and forged commercial, cultural and civilisational links. In recent times, the relationship between the two countries has been marked by an upswing in the strategic partnership.
One of the starting points of this defining relationship is the Delhi Declaration signed on 27 January, 2006, when King Abdullah made a state visit to India and was the chief guest at India’s Republic Day Celebration. This was followed by the Riyadh Declaration of 2010 when Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh made a return visit to Riyadh. The two sides, under these two declarations, not only accelerated the exchange of visits at the official, ministerial, business, academic and political levels, but also the two countries pledged to cooperate proactively on security, defence, economic and political areas. These included: developing knowledge-based economies commensurate with advances in space sciences, frontier techniques, research and development, information and technology, Science and Technology, peaceful uses of outer space. As part of strengthening strategic partnership, India and Saudi Arabia through Saudi-India Business Council charted ambitious plans to create investment opportunities in infrastructure and energy sectors.
The relationship received a boost by the fact that Saudi Arabia’s economy is among the fastest economies of the world and as per The Global Competitiveness Report released in September 2014, Saudi Arabia was ranked 24th among the 144 countries reviewed by the reputed World Economic Forum. To attract foreign investors, Saudi government also offered 100 percent investment ownership with no restrictions on capital transfer and low-cost industrial loans up to 75 percent of capital. To put things in comparative context, Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth largest trade partner and the fifth largest export destination. For Saudi Arabia, India is the second largest market for its oil exports (except China), the fifth largest market for its total exports and the seventh largest source of its imports. While India imports nearly 20 percent of crude oil from Saudi Arabia, (and in 2014-15, it supplied 34.49 million tons of crude oil to India) , Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority has issued over 400 licenses to Indian industrial houses to set up enterprises in areas such as telecom, IT, pharmaceuticals, construction, travel and tourism.
India’s expatriate community in Saudi Arabia, that has numbered close to three million, have also played a pivotal role in the shaping of strategic partnership by being a model group and being recognised for skills, innovation, competence and commitment to excellence.
In the Riyadh Declaration, which was also followed by other high-level ministerial visits, both the countries resolved to combat terrorism and agreed to enhance level of cooperation in the exchange of information relating to terrorist activities, money laundering, arms and human trafficking, narcotics as well as signing of the extradition treaty and the Agreement for Transfer of Sentenced Prisoners.
In the February 2014 visit of then Crown Prince H.E. Salman’s visit to Delhi, both the countries signed MoUs that would allow defense-related information, military training and education as well as cooperation in areas varying from hydrography and security to logistics. India also suggested that the Royal Saudi Navy can play a vital role in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) Construct.
Saudi-India ties received a new high with staging visit of an Indian Air Force flying contingent at the King Fahd Air Base in Taif in August 2015. The mission, comprising more than 100 high-ranking IAF officials and airmen from Sukhoi MK I fighter aircraft, C-17 Globe Masters, C-130 Super Hercules and IL- 78 aircraft underscored the close defense ties between Saudi Arabia and India. There have been frequent goodwill visits by the Indian Navy ships to the ports of Jeddah and Jubail and have had transport aircraft using Saudi Arabia as transit points. Both countries have regularly exchanged high-level delegations for furthering cooperation between the two armed forces. Officers from both countries have been attending courses in their pursuit of shared learning to bolster security in their respective spheres of activity.
Saudi Minister for Foreign Affairs Adel bin Ahmed Al Jubeir, while visiting India on March 7-8, 2016, had stated that India is a “very important partner” for Saudi Arabia and expressed his desire to expand bilateral engagement, indicating a growing commonality in how each country perceives the other, including as key stakeholders in their respective regions impacting the global scene. Very recently, during Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi’s official visit to Saudi Arabia in April 2016, he has publicly acknowledged and thanked Saudi King Salman for the assistance rendered by Saudi Arabia that resulted in the safe evacuation of Indian nationals from Yemen. Prime Minister Modi and the Saudis signed five new bilateral agreements to improve relations, covering intelligence sharing on terrorism financing, increasing private investment and enhancing defense cooperation.
Overall, both the ambience and, in terms of substance, strategic and economic cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia are robust and gaining strength. However, it is to be remembered that, the West Asian region, including the Arabian peninsula and Gulf region have been witnessing shifting alliances with Iran emerging as an important player, sectarian polarisation and the possibility of the emergence of terrorist and insurgent outfits such as the al-Qaeda and ISIS. To what extent Saudi Arabia will cope with internal and external challenges and to what extent the geostrategic environment will tilt and in which direction will determine the future contours of the ongoing defense and strategic cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia.
Author: Dr Mohammed Badrul Alam, Professor, Dept. of Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi