Riyadh Visit: Where Saudi Arabia Figures In Modi’s Foreign Policy

Riyadh Visit: Where Saudi Arabia Figures In Modi’s Foreign Policy

by P R Kumaraswamy - Tuesday, October 29, 2019 05:24 PM IST
Riyadh Visit: Where Saudi Arabia Figures In Modi’s Foreign Policy Prince Mohammed Bin Salman with Prime Minister Narendra Modi
  • A robust economic partnership with many countries, especially with Saudi Arabia, in mega infrastructure projects, is the key to Prime Minister Modi’s ‘5 trillion’ goal.

With the sole and notable exception of Pakistan, India's relations with the wider Islamic world have improved considerably ever since Narendra Modi became prime minister in May 2014.

Despite the unfriendly noises over Kashmir, even Malaysia and Turkey do not wish to antagonise India. However, the icing on the cake goes to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is hosting Prime Minister Modi in an investment summit in Riyadh.

An invitation for this came in June this year when the Indian leader met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (more popularly known as MbS) in Osaka during the G-20 meeting.

The Delhi Declaration issued during the visit of King Abdullah in January 2005 eloquently talked about the commitment of both the countries to move beyond ‘transactional relations’ that revolved around the Indian import of crude oil from the Kingdom.

As happens to many other commitments, both were unable to walk the talk until the arrival of Prime Minister Modi.

As part of its summit-centric foreign policy initiatives, Prime Minister Modi has been meeting and cultivating the Saudi leadership ever since he met the then Crown Prince—now King—Salman during the Brisbane summit of the G-20 in November 2014.

Since then, he has met the Saudi leadership in G-20 gatherings in Antalya (November 2015), Hangzhou (September 2016), Buenos Aires (November-December 2018) and Osaka (June 2019); with the exception of the Hamburg summit in July 2017 where a junior official represented Saudi Arabia due to a domestic crisis.

Moreover, Prime Minister Modi had visited Riyadh in April 2016 and hosted MbS in February early this year; thus, including the Osaka G-20 meet, both the leaders would be meeting for the third time this year and for the eighth time since 2014.

Such high-profile and sustained engagement with the Saudi leadership was unheard of in the annals of Indian diplomacy before Modi. Back then, the importance of Saudi Arabia did not go beyond courteous noises and perfunctory statements.

As part of its diversification efforts, the Kingdom is keen to partner with India's energy security strategy.

At the immediate level, Riyadh has offered to bridge any difficulties in India to meet its energy imports following the renewal of American sanctions against Iran and this assurance was renewed when Aramco facilities came under a drone attack in September.

Indeed, since 2006-07, the Kingdom has been the largest supplier of crude oil to India.

The Kingdom is negotiating for the construction of the $44 billion petrochemical complex in Maharashtra. This issue is complicated by concerns over land rights and the assembly election that has just concluded.

In August, Mukesh Ambani announced his decision to sell 20 per cent of the stakes in Reliance to the state-owned Aramco, the largest oil company in the world, for an estimated price of $15 billion.

When it materialises, this would be the largest single investment by a non-Indian entity in the Indian private sector. Negotiations are on for a Saudi partnership in India to expand its strategic oil reserves as well as to privatise state-owned oil companies.

A robust economic partnership, especially in mega infrastructure projects, is the key to Prime Minister Modi's ambition of transforming India into a $5 trillion economy by 2014-15.

While other countries can provide technological and scientific support, funds will have to come from countries like Saudi Arabia. In February, MbS indicated that his country would be able and willing to invest up to $100 in India.

Prime Minister Modi will be attending the investment summit as a special guest. The Saudi desire to move away from oil dependence and expand the resource base through sectors such as tourism, entertainment, education and health should provide an opportunity for India to offer its knowledge, expertise and experience.

MbS sees investments as a two-way process and hence, the Indian leader will not only be carrying a wish list for Saudi investments but also offers of assistance and partnership with the hosts.

However, the emerging bonhomie is not merely commercial or energy-related.

For quite some time, both countries have been expanding security and intelligence cooperation in their fight against extremism. In February, Prime Minister Modi and Crown Prince MbS recognised the ‘menace of extremism' and the ‘misuse of cyberspace as a medium to promote subversive and extremist ideologies.'

Indeed, unlike countries like Britain and Malaysia, the Kingdom has been quietly sending back persons wanted by India for terrorism and criminal offenses.

Interestingly, more visible and tangible gains of Modi's diplomacy vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia came through Pakistan.

In February, Riyadh was quick to condemn the Pulwama attack and, when the Indian parliament abrogated Article 370 of the constitution, it did not fall for the Pakistani trap calling for Islamic solidarity over Kashmir in August.

Though courteous to Prime Minister Imran Khan, Riyadh stood its ground, thereby forcing Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to lament, "the guardians of Ummah have also made investments (in India) and they have their own interests."

The Saudi de-linking of Pakistan from India would not be possible had Modi kept the ties at the transactional level.

Hosting the Indian leader when Imran Khan is seeking censure and isolation of India is a testimony to Prime Minister Modi’s inclusive, non-partisan, non-controversial hard-nosed approach towards the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The opening of political space and economic reforms in the non-oil sector are ‘manna from heaven’ for a development-centric foreign policy approach and Modi’s second visit to Riyadh since 2014 is a testimony to that.

Professor P R Kumaraswamy teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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