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Saudi Royal Visit to New Delhi - A Sign of Changing Times

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee

“Why has India forgotten us?” enquired Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud as he received Salim Sherwani, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs when he visited Saudi Arabia in 1997.

The Prince, now the King of Saudi Arabia, was invited by India to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day Parade on January 26, 2006. Saudi Arabia is neither a democracy nor a republic yet such hurdles of protocol were overlooked when the King was invited to India’s most prestigious parade, a grand public function, which show-cases the nation’s growing military might and the diversity of its culture and its social strengths. In a further departure from protocol Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally received the Monarch at the Indira Gandhi Airport. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud was presented with a guard of honour at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Presidential Palace, by the Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army.

“The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” as he likes to be known, could not hold back a very personal emotion saying “India is my second home”. For a Monarch who believes in the diplomacy of religious affinities, with the exception of cosy relationship with the US, saying such a thing standing on the soil of secular democratic India meant something. It certainly touched many Indian hearts. At the ceremonial reception in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, King Abdullah said his visit would help renew the historical and civilisational ties between the two countries.

As it turned out, the King’s statement was not an empty rhetoric. He said that the time had come for India to be given the status of an Observer at the 57 member Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC). He also made a suggestion that, India’s entry into the OIC should be sponsored by none other than Pakistan. This was a grand gesture. Pakistan has used the platform of the OIC, dominated by pan-Islamic politics, to hammer and pillory India on Kashmir and on the treatment of its Muslims. It is obvious that the Saudi King wanted Pakistan to stop tabling anti-Indian resolutions at the OIC, which it has been doing year after year.

King Abdullah is also a reformist and a moderniser not quite known outside conservative Saudi Arabia. He has advised Muslims in non-Muslim countries to stay loyal to their governments. He favours a dialogue between the Shias and the Sunnis and most significantly he also wants dialogue with the non-Muslims and rejects violence and extremism. All these are immensely relevant to India and may help clear suspicions about the loyalties of certain sections of the Muslim community.

India nurses legitimate concerns over Saudis funding Jihadi outfits. Not surprisingly, apart from energy security, terrorism dominated the discussions between the Saudi Monarch and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Summit level talks however hit a rough patch over the definition of terrorism. There were differences of perception over freedom struggles. The Saudi view was that freedom struggles justified the use of terror tactics but they cannot be described as terrorism in the traditional sense. India categorically and unequivocally rejects and opposes the use of terror against innocents as unjustified.

Sensing Indian frustrations over definitions, the Saudi Monarch surprised many when he pledged his country’s determination to fight terrorism and extremism regardless of “faith” – a clear signal and perhaps a warning to the Islamists in the region that Saudi Arabia is not the same country as it was before. He went on to say that he has declared war on terrorism adding that there was a need to work together on the menace. The said that his country was against any support to terrorism – financial or moral. India will closely watch if the Saudi King meant what he said in Delhi.

A proposed Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty – usually a precursor to an extradition treaty was however abandoned on Saudi objections. Instead a Memorandum of Understanding on combating terrorism was inked between the two nations.

With its enormous oil wealth, Saudi Arabia loves countries with high energy demand. India and China are two such countries. The King has gone on record saying that he would like to develop special relationships with these two countries in addition to Malaysia. He calls this his Look East Policy.

It has a certain resonance with India’s very own Look East Policy initiated by Prime Minister P.V.Narasimha Rao in 1991 and continued since then by both Vajpayee and Singh.

King Abdullah’s 45 minute talks with the Indian Prime Minister brought out the mutualiy of interests between the two nations. As Saudi Arabia sought to align itself with India, a rising economic power, for access to its technology as well as its vast market, India sought Saudi petro-dollars as well as political support to boost its growth in a peaceful environment.

Dr Manmohan Singh told King Abdullah that “India’s growing market, with a large middle class, abundant raw material, a highly trained and skilled man-power specially in the fields of science and technology is thirsting for new investments” The Monarch made it clear to the PM that he was interested in all of them.

An important factor that makes India’s Saudi connection very important apart from energy is the presence of Indian ex-pat workers in the country.. In 2005 their numbers soared to 1.6 million and they send $4 billion annually, which is half of the total of Gulf remittances.

The Saudi King offered to become India’s largest energy partner just as he had earlier agreed to become the largest energy supplier to China. Saudi Aramco, the country’s corporate entity, will invest in 5 oil refineries in India at Bina, Bhatinda, Paradip Barmer and Kakinada. Reliance however has taken the lead in leap-frogging the two countries into high level economic engagement in the energy sector. It has decided to invest in a $8 billion refinery and petro-chemical project in Saudi Arabia. This will mark the first substantial Indian presence in the Saudi energy sector.

The Saudis also signed MoUs with Indian companies in sunrise industries such as Information technology, Bio-technology and Medical tourism. It is obvious that the economic gains of the Saudi King’s visit will be very large.

India depends on crude oil imports for 70 percent of its needs. The high oil prices have hit India hard. It was encouraging to note that Saudi Arabia has declared its willingness to meet all of India’s energy requirements. In 2005 India imported 26 percent of its oil needs from Saudi Arabia. This figure is likely to go up sharply. Quite rightly India voiced its concerns at the sky-rocketing oil prices and the need to curb such run-away inflationary increases.

Betraying an ancient mind-set, the Saudi King refused to visit Raj Ghat – Mahatma Gandhi’s Samadhi – which is a routine in all state visits. The Custodian of Two Holy Mosques could not be seen to be saluting anyone other than Allah and the All Merciful. The other incident was that he wanted to visit and pray at the Jama Masjid, Asia’s largest Mosque, but because security personnel did not give clearance he could not undertake the trip.

I think I missed something important. This happens to be the ubiquitous presence of the Pakistani connection in anything connected with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has decided to acquire several squadrons of the Eurofighters from the EU. It has been reported that Pakistan Air Force personnel will operate these high-tech frontline fighters. Given the past record, the implications for India are obvious.

Apart from these foibles, the state visit of the King of Saudi Arabia in January 2006 was a great success and full of potential. The fact that India was included in the first foreign trip of the Monarch after he assumed the throne is a significant event. His visit coming 51 years after the last visit by a Saudi Monarch also says something. It was an important visit by any yardstick.

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