Saudi crown prince’s visit underscores India’s regional importance
NEW DELHI // The crown prince of Saudi Arabia arrived in New Delhi on Wednesday on a trip to seal security, energy and business agreements with India.
Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s three-day visit highlights growing ties between two countries bound together by a vast Indian expatriate workforce and India’s reliance on Saudi oil.
Prince Salman, the highest-level Saudi dignitary to visit India since King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in 2006, is expected to meet president Pranab Mukherjee, prime minister Manmohan Singh, and vice president Hamid Ansari.
The two countries also aim to increase cooperation in “areas ranging from hydrocarbons to security”, according to a release from the Saudi embassy in New Delhi.
The Saudi delegation will sign a memorandum to increase defence sector cooperation amid shifting power balances in the region.
Although details of the defence deal are not yet known, India is only too aware that two weeks ago Saudi Arabia pledged to deepen strategic military ties with Pakistan, its arch-rival.
Yet, Saudi Arabia and Arabian Gulf states have always shared close ties with India.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar are home to nearly seven million Indian expatriates who send home remittances worth US$30 billion (Dh110 billion) every year.
“The Gulf countries provide almost 60 per cent of our energy requirement,” Mridul Kumar, a joint secretary at India’s ministry of external affairs, said in a news conference last weekend. “The Gulf countries are our largest trading partner by far as a regional group. And we are looking at an annual trade of over $180 billion, which is almost 26 per cent of our global trade.”
But as Washington mends relations with Iran, and as Saudi Arabia and the United States face friction over Syria, geopolitics has pitched the Gulf countries even closer to India, said Kabir Taneja, a research scholar at the Takshashila Institution, a Chennai-based think tank.
“Saudi Arabia’s shift towards India has been happening for a couple of years now,” Mr Taneja told The National. “And the parameters of cooperation are broadening. They’re looking actively to invest now. Instead of just providing oil, they want a strategic partnership.”
“Our mutual development needs have added a new dimension to this relationship,” said Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesperson for India’s external affairs ministry. “We need energy from all sources, as well as investments, as our economic development gathers pace. On the other hand, we have a young, skilled population that can provide services which are needed for the growth of these countries.”
Apart from the defence sector, India and Saudi Arabia have been working together on several other fronts. Counter-terrorism is one of them, Mr Taneja said.
Saudi Arabia and India have shared intelligence, and Riyadh has deported alleged terrorists to India over the last two years, he said.
Infrastructure is another sector of cooperation. Riyadh’s metro rail network is being constructed by Larsen & Toubro, an Indian firm. The proposed Haramain High Speed Railway, linking Mecca and Medina, will be laid on rails from the Indian steel giant Tata Steel.
At the same time, India is trying to walk a delicate line in its relationships with rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif is expected to visit New Delhi on a two-day trip beginning Wednesday.
That neither Prince Salman or Mr Zarif has complained about the overlapping visits shows how important India is destined to become for both Saudi Arabia and Iran, Mr Taneja said.
“In 20 years’ time, when the United States and Europe become less reliant on the Gulf’s energy production, India, along with China, will become the predominant consumer,” he said. “The Gulf states are preparing for this future, and India is aware of it.”
However, the Indian government is “dreading having to make a choice between Saudi Arabia and Iran.” said Mr Taneja?
India imports 83 per cent of all the crude oil it consumes. Its main supplier is Saudi Arabia. But at the same time, India is keen to start tapping Iran’s reserves of natural gas. In 2012-13, India imported 13.14 million tons of crude from Iran, down from 18.11 million tons the previous year.
“So India is going to remain ambiguous for as long as possible,” Mr Taneja said. “And India will engage with everyone during this time, to keep its options open. India is thinking of the long term.”
Updated: February 26, 2014 04:00 AM