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Forging a Strategic Partnership with Saudi Arabia

Dr Prasanta Kumar Pradhan is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • March 04, 2010

    Manmohan Singh’s three day visit to Saudi Arabia from February 27-March 1, 2010 was the first by an Indian Prime Minister after Indira Gandhi visited the Kingdom in 1982. Singh is only the third Indian Prime Minister to visit the Kingdom, after Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. His visit has been “very productive and fruitful” and is a big step forward in Indo-Saudi relations. Singh held talks with King Abdullah and some of his cabinet colleagues on a number of bilateral and regional issues. He also became the first Indian Prime Minister to address the Saudi Majlis.

    The foundation for stronger bilateral relations in the recent past was laid during King Abdullah’s 2006 visit to India. Abdullah’s visit marked a change in Indian and Saudi perceptions of each other. During Manmohan Singh’s visit to Riyadh, the two leaders reviewed the implementation of the Delhi Declaration and further consolidated it by signing the Riyadh Declaration. In the Riyadh Declaration, the two leaders condemned terrorism and extremism, agreed to enhance cooperation in the exchange of information relating to terrorist activities, money laundering, narcotics, arms and human trafficking, and to develop joint strategies in combating these threats. They lauded existing cooperation in defence fields and agreed to further strengthen this cooperation to realise their common interests. Both leaders also agreed to develop a broad-based economic partnership including infrastructure, energy and enhancing bilateral trade. The Riyadh Declaration has been termed as “a new era of strategic partnership” by both countries.

    Apart from the Riyadh declaration, India and Saudi Arabia signed an extradition treaty, an agreement on the transfer of sentenced persons, agreement on scientific cooperation, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Indian Space Research Organisation and King Abdul Aziz University of Science and Technology on cooperation in peaceful uses of outer space, an MoU on cooperation in Science and technology for joint research and development, and an MoU on cultural cooperation. An MoU between the Centre for Development of Advance Computing and King Abdul Aziz University for Science and Technology, and for media cooperation between the Press Trust of India and the Saudi Press agency was also signed.

    Even in the energy sector, the Indian Prime Minister proposed a strategic partnership between the two countries. Addressing Saudi businessmen at the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Manmohan Singh called for a comprehensive energy partnership. He said, "We should also establish new partnerships in the area of new and renewable energy through the sharing of clean technologies and joint collaborations." Similarly, speaking to the Saudi-India Business Forum, Singh stated that it is time to move beyond the traditional buyer-seller relationship to forge a comprehensive energy partnership with Saudi interests in India and vice versa. India also invited Saudi Arabia to participate in crude storage facilities in India and the Joint Working Group on Energy has been directed to adopt appropriate means in this regard. As energy security is a major concern for India, and given that India imports about 20 per cent of its total energy needs from Saudi Arabia, it wants uninterrupted supply of energy for its growing domestic consumption. The Saudi side assured the Indian Prime Minister of the Kingdom’s “desire and readiness” to provide India with its “present and future” oil needs. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is the fourth largest trading partner of India. According to the Indian Ministry of Commerce and Industry, total bilateral non-oil trade between the two countries for the year 2008-09 stood at US $25.08 billion. Indian imports from Saudi Arabia were valued at $19.97 billion, while the export figure for the year was $5.11 billion.

    Terrorism was high on the agenda of the talks between Singh and Abdullah. They acknowledged that their countries are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. While India has suffered terrorist attacks sponsored and inspired by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia has been a victim of violence perpetrated by al Qaeda. Saudi Arabia is one of the most influential allies of Pakistan – it is the largest supplier of oil to Pakistan and the two countries maintain deep political and military ties. Primarily for this reason, Singh asked Abdullah to persuade Pakistan to cease supporting terrorism against India.

    Manmohan Singh’s discussions with Saudi leaders as well as the agreements and MoUs signed show trust building of a higher order, which is essential for a long term strategic partnership between the two countries. It seems that the trust deficit of the cold war era is waning and that the two countries are fast moving into the arena of mutual cooperation and confidence building. Acknowledging each other’s role, power and responsibility in their respective regions and joining hands to address bilateral and regional political, security and economic issues that concern them is a big step forward for the relationship.

    The agreements signed reflect the fact that the two countries are trying to move beyond the traditional economic relations and enter into a long term strategic partnership including political, economic, scientific and cultural relations. There is a visible departure from the practices of the past, which was dominated by trade and business and the obvious absence of any strong bilateral political and strategic partnerships. Manmohan Singh’s visit has been successful in imparting a “strategic” aspect to the relationship. This was also acknowledged by King Abdullah who said that, "Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit and the signing of a number of agreements and memorandums of understanding reflect a new era of strategic partnership between the two countries."