“India, Saudi Arabia set to carry out first-ever naval exercise” proclaimed report 1, indicating the growing nature of Indo-Saudi Arabia bilateral relationship. Historically, India and Saudi Arabia have maintained cordial relations for many years. India has been sensitive in cultivating these relations -primarily because of its energy security requirements. However, these bilateral relations have seen an important shift in recent years. Undoubtedly, India and Saudi Arabia have always maintained a mutually beneficial socio-economic relationship. Saudi Arabia has also been empathetic towards India’s cause in the Islamic world. India needs to nurture a bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia.
To introduce a new and important dimension in the existing relationship and to cover cooperation in the defence/security sphere, armies of the two countries have planned to hold a joint exercise for the first time, in the latter part of the year and the Indian Army contingent would travel to Saudi Arabia for that. Meanwhile, navies of the two countries were planning to hold their first-ever joint naval exercises in March 2020, but they had to be postponed on account of the pandemic. The naval exercise has now been rescheduled for Aug 2021. These exercises may seem routine to a layman’s eye, but their strategic importance should not be undermined1a,2.
This article will, therefore, briefly examine the historic background of Indo- Saudi Arabia bilateral relationship and its current status, the importance of these bilateral relations, the significance of bilateral military exercises, the impact of this relationship as related to the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) and future course of action.
India Saudi Arabia Bilateral Relationship
India and Saudi Arabia have enjoyed cordial and friendly relations clearly seen through the prism of centuries-old economic and socio-cultural ties. India established diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia in 1947 which were positively strengthened by many high-level visits from both sides. To cite some examples, King Saud visited India in 1955 and the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited the Kingdom in 1956. 1982 visit of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to Saudi Arabia gave a further boost to the bilateral relations. In recent times, the historic visit of King Abdullah to India, in 2006, resulted in the signing of the ‘Delhi Declaration’ imparting a fresh momentum to the bilateral relationship. The relationship has only grown over the years.
The above-mentioned visit of King Abdullah provided the framework for cooperation in all fields of mutual interest. The reciprocal visit by Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh to Saudi Arabia, in 2010, was responsible for raising the level of bilateral engagement to ‘Strategic Partnership’ and the ‘Riyadh Declaration’ signed during that visit captured the spirit of enhanced cooperation in political, economic, security and defence realms.
The visit of His Royal Highness Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, then the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to India (now King), in February 2014, strengthened the bond further. In another significant development, the Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi met with the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, in November 2015, on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Antalya -Turkey, and discussed areas of bilateral interest.
In addition to the above, a very highly successful visit of Prime Minister Shri. Narendra Modi to Saudi Arabia -in April 2016, enhanced the spirit of cooperation in the political, economic, security and defence realms. The conferring of the highest civilian honour on Prime Minister Modi, by the Saudi King, was seen as an indication of the importance the Kingdom attaches to its relations with India. Further, the ‘State Visit’ honour accorded to the visit of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to India, in February 2019, accelerated the momentum further. During that visit, announcements of Saudi investments in India targeting a value of US $ 100 billion and an increase in Hajj quota to 2, 00,000 pilgrims were made.
Hon, Prime Minister of India Shri. Narendra Modi paid an official visit to Riyadh, on the invitation of His Majesty King Salman from October 28-29, 2019. During this visit an important agreement- Strategic Partnership Council (SPC) Agreement- was signed, identifying India as one of the Kingdom’s Strategic Partner Countries under ‘Vision 2030’ with a high-level partnership council at the leadership level. Twelve MoUs and Agreements were also signed during that visit- in the fields of energy, security, combating trafficking of narcotic drugs, defence production, civil aviation, medical products, strategic petroleum reserves, small and medium scale industries, the launch of Rupay card, cooperating in the training of diplomats, cooperation between stock exchanges etc. PM also delivered a keynote address at the Third Future Investment Initiative Summit during the visit.
The landmark visits of Prime Minister Shri. Narendra Modi to KSA in 2016 and 2019 and the state visit of Crown Prince HRH Mohammed Bin Salman to India in February 2019 marked a new and strong chapter in the bilateral relations, culminating in setting up the Strategic Partnership Council3.
All such visits and following efforts have been responsible for strengthening the bonds between the countries. It would be important to examine some details of India-Saudi Arabia ties here.
Derails of India Saudi Arabia Cooperation 3a
Economic & Commercial Relations
Table-I Trade Values India-Saudi Arabia-
|Year||Imports from KSA||Exports to KSA||Total Trade||% increase in Total Trade||% increase in Imports||% increase in Exports|
[Source: Department of Commerce, Govt. of India]
Trade- According to Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA), there are 476 Indian companies registered as joint ventures/100% owned entities worth US$ 1.5 billion in the Kingdom as of March 2020. These licenses are for projects in diverse sectors such as Management and Consultancy services, Construction projects, Telecommunications, Information Technology, Financial Services and Software Development, Pharmaceuticals, etc. Major Indian companies and corporate groups such as L&T, TATAs, Wipro, TCS, TCIL, Shapoorji & Pallonji, etc. have established a strong presence in Saudi Arabia. SAGIA is in talks with Indian start-ups such as OYO, Delhivery, Firstcry, Grofers, Policy Bazaar, and Paytm to enter the Saudi market. Trade statistics from the years 2015 to 2020 have been indicated in the table above.
Saudi Investments in India- Saudi Arabia is the 39th largest investor in India with investments amounting to US $315 Million. Major investment groups include ARAMCO, SABIC, ZAMIL, E-holidays, Al Batterjee Group. The Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund backed Soft Bank’s ‘Vision Fund’ has invested several billion dollars in the Indian Start-ups such as Delhivery, FirstCry, Grofers, Ola, OYO, Paytm and Policy Bazaar.
Saudi Petrochemical Giant SABIC set up its R&D Centre in Bangalore with an investment of over US $100 million in 2013. Saudi Aramco and UAE’s ADNOC are jointly participating in the development of US $44 billion ‘West Coast Refinery & Petrochemicals Project Limited’ in Maharashtra. Saudi Company Al- Fanar is executing a 300 MW power project in Gujarat. Saudi Aramco signed an MoU with the Mumbai based GumPro to set up a drilling fluids facility in 2018. In August 2019, Saudi Aramco announced that it plans to acquire a 20% share in Reliance Industries Limited’s Oil and Chemical business at an enterprise value of US $75 billion. Several Saudi Companies have invested in India through their non-Saudi subsidiaries. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign fund PIF (Public Investment Fund) has announced to invest the US $1.5 billion in Jio Platforms, India’s leading telecommunication and digital services company. PIF will hold a 2.32% stake in Jio Platforms on a fully diluted basis.
India successfully participated as ‘Guest of Honour’ in the 32nd edition of the prestigious Saudi National Festival of Heritage and Culture – Janadriyah from February 7 – 28, 2018. The then External Affairs Minister Smt. Sushma Swaraj jointly inaugurated the India Pavilion with His Majesty King Salman.
Yoga was announced as a ‘sports activity’ in November 2017. Since then, the Embassy has been organizing the International Yoga Day (IDY) celebrations in an open area in the centre of Riyadh. The IDY 2018 and IDY 2019 witnessed the participation of a large number of Saudi nationals, particularly the youth, in addition to the diplomatic corps, journalists and Indian diaspora. Considering the COVID pandemic situation, IDY 2020 celebrations included an ‘Inaugural session’ with the Minister of State, AYUSH & Defence Shri. Shripad Yesso Naik (as the Chief Guest), live yoga demo on Facebook and a webinar on “Yoga and Post Corona Health Order”.
The 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi was marked by a series of events that culminated on October 2, 2019, with the unveiling of the Gandhi bust at the Embassy. A large event was organized by the Embassy to commemorate the 550th birth anniversary of Shri. Guru Nanak Dev Ji on November 14, 2019. Constitution Day was celebrated on November 26, 2019. Dr Abdullah Al-Harbi, Saudi Shura Council Member and Chairman of the India-Saudi Arabia Parliamentary Friendship Committee was the Guest of Honour. As part of the 71st Republic Day celebration, an eight-member ICCR sponsored Bhangra troupe visited the Kingdom and performed at Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam.
Indian Community in Saudi Arabia
The 2.6 million-strong Indian community is the largest expatriate community in the Kingdom and is highly respected due to its sense of discipline, law-abiding and peace-loving nature. The contribution made by the Indian community to the development of Saudi Arabia is well acknowledged. In April 2013, His Majesty King Abdullah announced a grace period allowing overstaying expatriates to get new jobs or leave the country without facing penal action. More than 1.4 lakh Indians availed the amnesty and returned home without facing a penalty. Saudi authorities announced another amnesty period between April – November 2017 during which around 70, 000 Indians were issued travel documents to return to India. The integration of the Indian e-Migrate system and Saudi e-Thawtheeq system for the convenience of migration of workers was announced during the Prime Minister’s visit in October 2019.
Hajj pilgrimage is another important component of bilateral relations. The Hajj Quota was increased by 24,975 in 2019, enabling 2, 00,000 Indians to perform Hajj in August 2019. Minority Affairs Minister. Shri Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Hajj and Umrah Minister of Saudi Arabia Mr Mohammed Sales bin Taser Benten signed the Annual Bilateral Hajj 2020 Agreement in December 2019 making India the first country in the world to make the entire Hajj process digital. It would enable complete digitization of the Hajj process by providing Hajj mobile app, health facility -“e-MASIHA”, “e-luggage pre-tagging” and HGOs (Hajj Group Organisers) linked with the digital system. However owing to the COVID pandemic, the Saudi authorities have decided to organize Hajj 2020 in a restricted manner.
Collaboration Against COVID-19
To deal with the large scale COVID-19 problem, in an effective, coordinated and united manner, Prime Minister Shri. Narendra Modi and Saudi Crown Prince had a telephone conversation on March 17, 2020, during which they also planned to convene a G20 Virtual Summit.
Continued coordination has been maintained between the two sides at the ministerial level. Owing to strong people to people ties and continuous support extended by the Saudi government for the Indian community during the pandemic, External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar spoke with Saudi Foreign Minister His Highness Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud twice on April 23 & June 22, 2020, and conveyed appreciation for their efforts to take care of the Indian community in Saudi Arabia. In addition, Minister of Commerce & Industry Shri. Piyush Goyal spoke to his Saudi counterpart Dr Majid Al Qasabi over the phone on June 12, 2020, and discussed bilateral trade and economic cooperation. Both sides are ensuring cooperation in health and food security, maintaining supply chains & trade commitments during the COVID period.
The above narrative confirms the strong bonds between India and Saudi Arabia, which are expected to strengthen further in the years to come. It would be appropriate now to examine the importance of India Saudi Arabia Military Cooperation and Saudi Arabia’s standing in the Organisations of the Islamic countries.
India- Saudi Arabia Defence Cooperation
The symbolic foundation for Indo-Saudi Arabia Defence Cooperation was laid by then Indian Defence Minister Mr AK Antony’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2012, the first by an Indian defence minister to Riyadh. This was followed by signing a Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation in February 2014, which was important for strengthening the defence partnership. The two sides also agreed to set up a Joint Committee on Defence Cooperation (JCDC) to identify and augment defence collaboration between the two sides. JDCC has been holding regular meetings to build on the defence cooperation initiative.
The JCDC meetings imparted significant momentum to the maritime security ties between the two countries. The two sides have been engaged in training and capacity building exercises as well as hydrographic cooperation. The Saudi Arabia naval forces also stepped up their naval engagements with the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard. Indian Navy and Coast Guard ships reciprocated by undertaking several goodwill visits to Saudi ports since early 2000. During one such visit by Indian Coast Guard ship Samudra Paheredar in February 2020, the Embassy of India in Riyadh put out a statement saying that these visits “are symbolic of our desire to enhance our cooperation with the Kingdom in matters of defence.”
To further augment maritime ties between New Delhi and Riyadh, Admiral Sunil Lanba, chairman of the chiefs of staff committee and chief of the naval staff visited Saudi Arabia in February 2018, during which he met the Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Mohammad bin Abdullah Al-Aysesh as well as the heads of the various military services. In addition to these meetings, Admiral Lanba visited the Naval Operations Center, Naval Fire and Rescue School, and Western Fleet at Jeddah, which also involved a visit to HMS Dammam, an Al-Riyadh class frigate.
Since then Saudi Arabia has demonstrated a keen interest in strengthening maritime security cooperation with India in the western Indian Ocean, which includes some of the busiest shipping lanes, including those in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, and the Persian Gulf, the areas incidentally highlighted in the Indian Navy’s Maritime Security Strategy document (2015) as of enormous interest to India as well.
Saudi armed forces have regularly attended training programs at Indian military institutions including the National Defence College, the College of Defence Management and the Defence Services and Staff College. India and Saudi Arabia have also agreed to strengthen their cooperation in the area of defence production, as indicated by the signing of an MoU between the Saudi General Authority of Military Industries and India’s Department of Defence Production. The recent visits by India’s Chief of the Army Staff Gen MM Naravane, in December 2020 and that by Air Chief Marshal Bhaduria in Aug 2021, have helped in strengthening the bonds further. The Armies of both nations have planned for the first-ever Joint Exercises in the foreseeable future 4,5 .
AS we have examined earlier, the Navies of India and Saudi Arabia have started the pandemic postponed first-ever joint exercises since 09 Aug 2021. Reports have indicated that history was made as to the operational phase of the first-ever bilateral naval exercise between India and Saudi Arabia started on 11 Aug 2021, off the King Abdulaziz Naval base in Al-Jubail, Saudi Arabia 6.
In addition to the above, India has been seen as a reliable partner by Saudi Arabia, while implementing diversification of its defence imports sources and defence joint production and collaboration. In a significant move a delegation comprising Indian private companies, for the first time, attended the 4th Joint Committee on Defence Cooperation in Jan 2019 and had discussions with Saudi entities of Saudi Arabian Military Industries (GAMI) and Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI). Department of Defence Production signed an MoU with GAMI on the side-lines of PM’s visit to Riyadh in Oct 2019, to explore possibilities of joint defence production and collaboration7.
Overall, India-Saudi Arabia defence cooperation has considerably picked up the pace. N. Ram Prasad, deputy chief of mission at the Indian Embassy in Riyadh, recently wrote in Arab News that “the direction of the India-Saudi bilateral defence relationship remains extremely positive with several initiatives being taken” 4a, an indicator of strengthening India-Saudi Arabia defence cooperation in the coming years. This is of considerable significance because of India’s interests in the Middle East and Gulf Countries as well as stature in the region.
After examining bilateral aspects of India-Saudi Arabia relations it would be also important to examine some other important multi-lateral facets of the India-Saudi Arabia Relationship.
India-Saudi Arabia –OIC 8
The Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) grabs media headlines in India rarely, except when it states Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The 57-member organisation comprises Islamic countries which include India’s neighbours Bangladesh, Maldives and Pakistan.
India has had a rocky relationship with the OIC, ever since it was invited and then not allowed to participate, in the first OIC Summit in Morocco in 1969, in the face of opposition by Pakistan. But the picture started changing at the OIC foreign minister’s meeting in Abu Dhabi in 2019, India’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj was invited as a guest of honour, leading to much frustration in Pakistan and a boycott of the plenary session by the Pakistani foreign minister, where Swaraj delivered her address. Pakistan had tried its best to get Swaraj disinvited but failed to do so.
At the instigation of Pakistan Turkey and Malaysia have been criticising India in OIC. But the Indian government has initiated counter diplomatic/economic steps to thwart Turkey and Malaysia. After the ouster of Mahathir Malaysia has not spoken out again in the same vein. India’s ties with Saudi Arabia and UAE (two leading countries of the OIC) and that with Bangladesh and Maldives. India has maintained its ties with other Islamic countries have Most of these countries skirt the J&K issue in OIC meetings.
However, the role of Saudi Arabia in ensuring a fair approach of OIC towards India has been significant and that support is important for India.
India-Saudi Arabia-Afghanistan 9,10
It has been observed that lately, Saudi Arabia has started distancing itself from the Afghan crisis, in that both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, who have had historical connections with Afghanistan and Pakistan alike, including with the Taliban, have started maintaining a relative distance from the negotiations that began in 2018 in Doha, Qatar. Since early 2020, things have taken a very different turn in the Gulf. A peculiar narrative has started emanating from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others in the region of Afghanistan. Certain basic fundamental shifts have started taking place in the Middle East. With the Taliban taking firm control in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia has expressed concern and has urged Taliban insurgents who seized Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, completing a sweep across the country, to preserve lives, property and security as stipulated by “Islamic principles”.
Saudi Arabia certainly values its relationship with China, but at the same time is well aware of its limits. It is quite certain that Beijing will not replace Washington in Riyadh’s worldview, even if U.S.-Saudi relations. Saudi Arabia may be on more guard now owing to developments in Afghanistan and closer relations between China and the Taliban.
It is quite clear that Riyadh’s relations with China are all about oil, making China Saudi Arabia’s top economic trading partner. However, there is little strategic cooperation between the two and China does not share the Saudis’ hostility to Iran. India needs to appreciate these dynamics and build on them and India and Saudi Arabia have a lot to gain in the strategic sphere through closer cooperation.
Saudi Arabia and it’s Economic Ambitions 9a
As known, the UAE has become a major financial hub in the region, over the past few years, attracting appreciable trade, business and investments from across the world, and it has been able to position itself as the ‘Singapore of the Middle East.’ This shift has been critical for the UAE to pull itself away from being an economy dependent on oil and diversify its economic portfolio to prepare for a rapidly evolving global economy and political order.
The enormous success of the UAE in economic/financial/commerce fields has prompted Saudi Arabia to replicate under the current rulers. The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has initiated fundamental, critical, and difficult reforms in the kingdom to diversify from an exclusively oil-reliant economy.
This unprecedented ‘opening up of Saudi Arabia not only involves economic liberalisation but also social and theological reorientation. Such changes to traditional state structures have not gone down well with the likes of the Mujahideen fighting in places such as Afghanistan, or even with Pakistan. These are the changes India needs to analyse and use for achieving its national and strategic goals by strengthening its eco-politico-military relationship with Saudi Arabia.
In summary, it can be stated that multi-faceted strong bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia are of significant importance to India and these relations need to be further strengthened to protect India’s national interests, especially because of the latest developments in Afghanistan and its overall impact on Central and South Asian regions.
India and Saudi Arabia have enjoyed good bilateral relations for many years. India has made special efforts in building a relationship with Saudi Arabia keeping in view India’s energy security, the standing of Saudi Arabia in the region and the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) and India’s economic and security interests in the region. This has become more important with recent development in Afghanistan and its impacts on India and neighbouring countries.
It is fortunate that on the whole India-Saudi Arabia cooperation has considerably picked up the pace. The cooperation encompasses multiple facets like political, economic, commercial, trade, defence and strategic dimensions. N. Ram Prasad, deputy chief of mission at the Indian Embassy in Riyadh has corroborated this view recently by stating that “both countries are ascending powers and major players in their respective regions and are natural partners in addressing the various challenges confronting the region”13,14.
The need for strengthening the India-Saudi Arabia relationship has become more critical, because of the recent developments in Afghanistan. It is hoped that India would undertake a critical review of all the factors analysed above and initiate appropriate measures to further strengthen its relationships with Saudi Arabia.
Title Image Courtesy : https://www.bigstockphoto.com/image-134629937/
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies
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