Modi’s visit to usher in new era

Modi’s visit to usher in new era

modi

P.K. ABDUL GHAFOUR

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landmark visit to Riyadh on Saturday (April 2) is expected to usher in a new era in Saudi-Indian relations. The two Asian economic giants enjoy strong political, business and cultural ties for the last several decades and work together to combat terror and promote global peace.

Modi’s visit comes after a successful Indian tour of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, when he was the crown prince, deputy premier and defense minister. The high-level mutual visits underline the two countries’ desire to strengthen their relations in vital sectors including trade and energy.

King Salman, who is a highly erudite politician and administrator with more than 60 years experience as emir of Riyadh and adviser to all Saudi Kings, wants to promote good relations with India. During his visit to New Delhi in 2014, he highlighted the longstanding historic ties between the two countries.

According to a press statement issued by the Indian Embassy in Riyadh, Modi will hold talks with King Salman on prospects of expanding bilateral cooperation and promoting regional peace and stability.

He will also meet with Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Naif, deputy premier and interior minister, and Deputy Crown Prince minister Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, second deputy premier and minister of defense.

King Salman and Prime Minister Modi are expected to discuss ways of further strengthening bilateral cooperation in trade, energy, investment and security. The talks will also focus on international issues such as Syria, Iran, Yemen and Libya apart from setting out a joint strategy to fight terrorism.

This is the first visit by an Indian prime minister in six years. In 2010, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the Kingdom, paving the way for the two countries to sign 10 bilateral agreements.
“India and Saudi Arabia share friendly relations based on close people-to-people contacts. The strategic partnership established through Riyadh Declaration in 2010 envisions a deeper engagement in political, economic, security and defense areas,” the embassy said.

In recent years, there has been significant progress in bilateral cooperation in key areas. Saudi Arabia has become India’s fourth largest trading partner with two-way trade volume exceeding $40 billion. It is also India’s largest crude oil supplier accounting for about one-fifth of New Delhi’s total imports.

Indians form the largest expatriate community in Saudi Arabia and their contribution to its progress and development is well recognized. There are over 2.96 million Indian expats presently working in Saudi Arabia, the embassy said. According to another report, their number reached 3.5 million.

Indo-Saudi ties got a shot in the arm during King Abdullah’s visit to New Delhi in 2006, which resulted in the signing of the Delhi Declaration. The participation of King Abdullah in the country’s marvelous Republic Day celebrations impressed Saudis and changed their perception about Indians. The reciprocal visit by Singh in 2010 raised the level of bilateral engagement to Strategic Partnership.

In the second week of March, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir visited New Delhi to prepare for Modi’s visit. He met with Modi and his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj. Modi and Al-Jubeir expressed keenness to elevate ties between the two countries to strategic level by boosting cooperation in key areas of trade, security and counterterrorism.

“Both leaders exchanged views on further strengthening bilateral relations in the fields of trade, investment, energy, and security cooperation. They also discussed regional situation. They agreed that the two countries have shared interest in peace and stability in the region,” said a statement issued by the prime minister’s office.

Emphasizing that India attaches high importance to its close and friendly relations with Saudi Arabia, Modi also expressed confidence that his visit would provide an opportunity to elevate the bilateral strategic partnership to a new level.

On his part, the Saudi minister conveyed that relations with India have been given high priority in their foreign policy and “deeply appreciated” the constructive role being played by the Indian community in the development of his country.

The Saudi minister told Swaraj that Riyadh values its strong relationship with New Delhi. “We are keen to upgrade these ties to a strategic level covering security, counterterrorism, maritime links, trade, investment and people-to-people ties, Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Vikas Swarup said.

Swaraj also asserted that India too wanted to take Saudi ties to the next level and establish a strong security and counterterrorism partnership. “In this context, she sought KSA’s support for India’s draft Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT),” the spokesperson said. The two ministers also discussed regional developments and the threat posed by Daesh (so-called IS) terrorists.

On the trade front, she noted that though the trade volume was good but the investment from Saudi Arabia was very low — less than $60 million — and she invited Saudi investment in India’s infrastructure sector, the spokesperson said.

Swaraj also raised some of the issues facing Indian workers in Saudi Arabia and said the existing labor agreement with Saudi Arabia should be expanded to include sectors other than domestic workers.
Saudis and Indian expats have welcomed the prime minister’s visit saying it would herald a new era in Saudi-Indian ties.

Khaled Almaeena, a prominent journalist in the Middle East who has visited India several times, said Modi’s state visit would give a big boost to Indo-Saudi ties. “Ever since the late King Abdullah visited India in January 2006 there has been a flurry of visits by officials from both sides. Several avenues of cooperation have been opened,” he said while stressing the need to promote political ties.

Almaeena expressed his disappointment over the cooling down of India’s support for the Palestinians as well as his concern about rising intolerance in the country among a section of its political elite.

“It is important for the Kingdom that India be safe and secure from within.

It is equally important that both India and Pakistan who fought three wars should make all efforts for a peaceful subcontinent focusing on the welfare of their people,” Almaeena said. In addition to being the major trading partner, India can become a cultural and educational destination, he added. L. Ramnarayan Iyer, a seasoned Indian journalist working in Saudi Arabia for nearly four decades, hoped the prime minister’s discussions with Saudi leaders would benefit both countries.

“The regional bilateral and multilateral talks should be expanded to discussion on annual dialogue between academia, knowledge community and experts with regular exchange of scholars, experts and researchers between the two countries. This will help in expanding and exploring new areas of mutual interest in both the countries,” he said.

India can cooperate with Saudi Arabia in its diversification program and realize its dream of developing a knowledge-based economy, Ramnarayan said. Indian Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) sector has emerged as a highly vibrant and dynamic sector of the Indian economy over the last five decades. With KSA looking at SMEs to play a crucial role in providing large employment opportunities, India can play a role in its SMEs growth, he explained.

Ramnarayan urged Saudi and Indian leaders to explore the possibility of setting up higher education facilities in the Kingdom. “Joint ventures with Indian institutions and Saudi schools can see the setting up of knowledge cities that will house campuses teaching every discipline,” he said.

He said the move would not only alleviate the problems of Indian expat families, who have to send their wards back to India or around the globe for higher studies but also help Saudis get quality higher education in KSA itself without going abroad, stemming cash and brain drain.

“This idea once endorsed by the two countries would create a new investment opportunity that would bring in cash flows, and not see money going out of the country,” he pointed out.

Siddeek Ahmed, an Indian foreign investor in KSA and chairman and managing director of Eram Group, called upon the prime minister to establish an Indian consulate in the Eastern Province, which houses more than a million Indian expats and the largest Indian school in Asia with 18,000 students and 900 teachers.

“Social workers and companies in the province struggle to complete documentation works to repatriate the dead body of diseased Indian employees. Moreover, Indian workers have to travel more than 450 km to reach the Indian Embassy in Riyadh to lodge a complaint during labor disputes,” Ahmed said stressing the need to open a consulate in Dammam.