Holding regular elections is considered a hallmark of a vibrant and functioning democracy. But its flipside, entailing the possibility of a regime change, often makes world leaders extremely reluctant to embark on important visits to a country scheduled to go to polls in a few months.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman certainly bucks this trend. His maiden State visit to India—from February 19 to 20—comes at a time when preparation among political contenders for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls has begun in earnest, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi all set to seek the Indian electorate’s verdict on his government’s performance in the last five years.
The Crown Prince’s trip to India was firmed up at a meeting between him and PM Modi on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires in November last year. Part of his four-nation visit, the Crown Prince will be going to Pakistan and Malaysia before coming here and visit China after his Indian engagement.
Some feel the Crown Prince had a choice of either keeping India out of his itinerary or to brush aside the fact that his next engagement in India could well be with a different set of leaders. Followers of Indo-Saudi relations, however, point to a happy coincidence to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s India visit at this juncture. His father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, when he visited India as the crown prince in February 2014, came a few months before the parliamentary polls. Though he was hosted at that time by the Manmohan Singh-led Congress government, by May end Narendra Modi was sworn in as India’s new premier. Subsequent months proved bilateral relations to be as robust with the Modi government as it had been under the Congress regime.
The important message is perhaps clear: Riyadh may well be engaging with the government of the day, but its main aim is to transform Saudi Arabia’s relations with India, which is beyond an individual leader or any particular Indian regime. This is further bolstered by the fact that India is among the eight countries that Riyadh wants strategic ties with.
Indications suggest that the two countries, which already have a ‘srategic partnership’, may take additional steps that can help them elevate their partnership to a higher level and provide the opportunity for regular engagements to strengthen ties.
“It is an extremely timely and important visit,” says a senior South Block official, referring to the engagement scheduled next week between the Indian and Saudi leadership. He points out that the Crown Prince is the face of the Kingdom’s future leadership and this is an opportunity for the two sides to further strengthen ties that is spread over a wide field of areas. “Prince Mohammed bin Salman has effected significant changes within his own country and in Saudi relations with other countries. It is an important opportunity for the Indian leadership to engage with him,” the diplomat adds.
Indo-Saudi relations are traditional and historic, going back years when the two nations built a cooperative relation through their trade and cultural ties. The first visit to India by a Saudi monarch was that of King Saud bin Abdulaziz in 1955. India’s first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, visited the kingdom the next year. Though the Cold War period saw the two countries on opposing sides, then premier Indira Gandhi paid a visit to Riyadh in 1982.
Relations between the two sides began to turn around when King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz visited India in 2006--the first Saudi monarch to visit the country in 51 years. The King was the chief guest in India’s Republic Day celebrations. The visit helped India and Saudi Arabia deepen their engagement into various areas. Two years later, when Pakistan-based terrorists carried out the 26/11 attack in Mumbai, it allowed Riyadh to revisit its South Asian policy, especially its ties vis-à-vis India and its Cold War ally Pakistan. “It gave the Saudi leadership and those in the Gulf to look at their own vulnerability to similar attacks and reaffirm their fight against terrorism,” says India’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Talmiz Ahmad.
The visit to Saudi Arabia by Manmohan Singh in 2010 resulted in the Riyadh Declaration and a ‘strategic partnership’ between the two sides.
Under Modi, the relations were deepened and during his 2016 visit to Riyadh he was the recipient of the Kingdom’s highest civilian award—the King Abdulaziz Sash. That visit saw the two sides come out with a statement highlighting their “desire to harness each other’s potential for mutual gain”. In the last five years, King Salman and Modi have met thrice. Since he and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have already met and struck a cordial chord, the Saudi leader’s visit to New Delhi is eagerly awaited.
The Indo-Saudi Strategic Partnership is based on five pillars—energy relations, trade and investment, overseas employment, defence and security ties and cultural interactions.
Saudi Arabia is India’s main supplier of energy, with over 18 per cent of India’s oil coming from the Kingdom. The volume of bilateral trade—around $48 billion five years back—has now come down to less than $28 billion. This is attributed to a fall in global demand for oil and commodity. Though India’s fourth largest trading partner, it shows how much of it is still oil-centric.
However, this might soon change, with India and Saudi Arabia gearing to make themselves more attractive for foreign investors. The launch of Vision 2030 by Saudi Arabia—the Crown Prince’s pet project—aims to transform the country by diversification of its economy through reforms in non-oil sectors, according to an analysis by the Middle East Institute.
It says that according to one estimate, the Saudi economy offers over $650 billion in investment opportunities. “As reforms related to Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 are implemented, Indian investors are likely to be attracted to several sectors, including infrastructure, hydrocarbons, desalination, renewable energy, education, research and development, health, and pharmaceuticals,” the analysis adds.
This is backed by Yusuff Ali M.A., chairman of the Lulu Group International. “Saudi Arabia is a very important market and we will invest into the booming retail sector as we are upbeat about the vast opportunities in the Kingdom through its Vision 2030 initiative.” The Lulu Group plans to open 12 new hypermarkets and five malls there by next year. It employs over 2,700 Saudi nationals and plans to increase this to around 5,000 by 2020.
Saudi Arabia General Investment Authority (SAGIA) says over 420 Indian companies are present in the Kingdom with a capital of over $1.5 billion who are doing business through joint ventures or on 100 per cent ownership basis for projects in management and consultancy services, construction projects, telecommunications, IT and pharmaceuticals.
Though steps were taken to make India an attractive destination for investment from Saudi Arabia, Indian officials aren’t happy with the amount of investment by Saudi entities, especially in non-oil sectors. However, they feel the Crown Prince’s visit will help Saudi entrepreneurs take advantage of India’s recently announced vision 2030.
While energy and economic cooperation will be the mainstay of ties, the two nations are trying to deepen cooperation in defence and security. Saudi authorities have over the recent years deported a number of Indian nationals wanted for terrorist activities in the country, but who had absconded to Saudi Arabia.
MEA officials also talk about the growing keenness in Riyadh to have stronger strategic relations, pointing out Riyadh’s decision to allow Indian commercial aircraft to use Saudi airspace to reach Israel directly. This could well be part of the realignment among key players in West Asia to deal with the ‘Shia threat’ allegedly posed by Iran. New Delhi, nonetheless, is appreciative of the gesture.
In the past, strong Saudi-Pakistani ties concerned India, especially when Islamabad used developments in Kashmir to hide its encouragement to terror groups operating from its soil. With regular, improved exchanges between Indian and Saudi agencies on intelligence sharing, that seems to have changed.
The fact that the Crown Prince decided to go to Malaysia from Pakistan and not New Delhi is also something that some Indian policy planners see as an attempt to de-hyphenate Riyadh’s relations with the two South Asian neighbours.
However, India also continues to build strong ties with Iran and refrains from making any adverse comments on developments in the Gulf that could affect its ties with countries in this region.
The Saudi Crown Prince’s forthcoming visit will be another important occasion to see how well India manages its interests with key players in the strategically crucial West Asia.
Saudi, Indian Leaders’ Engagements
- 1955: King Saud became the first Saudi monarch to come to India
- 1956: PM Jawaharlal Nehru went to the Kingdom on his ‘Pilgrim of Peace’ visit
- 1982: Indira Gandhi visited Riyadh at the height of Cold War, hosted by King Fahd
- 2006: King Abdullah came to India, was chief guest at the R-Day celebrations
- 2010: PM Manmohan Singh visited Saudi Arabia; ‘Strategic Partnership’ agreement
- 2014: King Salman as Crown Prince visited India, held wide-ranging discussions
- 2016: PM Narendra Modi visited Riyadh, conferred the King Abdulaziz Sash