Diplomatic handshake between leaders from India and Saudi Arabia with flag-painted hands. Image: iStock
Diplomatic handshake between leaders from India and Saudi Arabia with flag-painted hands. Image: iStock

The one member of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet who has done some exemplary work is undoubtedly External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, whose February 6-8 visit representing the “guest of honor” country for this year’s Jenadriyah Festival in Saudi Arabia heralded a new fillip in cementing bilateral ties between Riyadh and New Delhi.

Swaraj said time-tested Indo-Saudi ties would see extra emphasis on growing cultural bonds apart from the usual economic relations.

There has been anxiety among the kingdom’s 3-million-strong Indian expatriate community lately due to an aggressive Saudization policy, and they look forward to Swaraj taking the friendly bilateral relations toward a promising future.

In the historical context, trade exchanges, economic opportunities, energy purchases and supplies, concerns over terrorism, strategic security, manpower and the Hajj are the major components of bilateral relations between India and Saudi Arabia.

In modern times, or since 1947 precisely, India has tried to maintain strong relations with Saudi Arabia, an important state and trading base in West Asia. Beginning in the 1950s when King Ibn Saud made a historic trip to New Delhi, which was followed by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru visiting the kingdom in 1956, the strong foundation continued to build on mutual respect when Indira Gandhi landed in Saudi Arabia in October 1982.

In modern times, or since 1947 precisely, India has tried to maintain strong relations with Saudi Arabia, an important state and trading base in West Asia

Her visit was a watershed moment in boosting bilateral relations. During her four-day visit, Gandhi was accorded a red-carpet welcome and an official remark to the Indian prime minister: “The entire Saudi Arabia is here to meet you.”

That was when myths and perceptions changed as Gandhi assured the Saudi king that Muslims in India were not discriminated against. The kingdom, given India’s close relations with the Soviet union, wanted Gandhi to deliver a message to the USSR urging it to withdraw from Afghanistan, after which Riyadh would establish diplomatic ties with Moscow.

During Gandhi’s presence in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia agreed to replace the ad hoc system of crude-oil supply to India with a regular, long-term arrangement.

The success of Gandhi’s visit was summed up by a Saudi official thus: “What [Pakistani president Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq] has not been able to achieve during his 17 visits to Riyadh, Mrs Gandhi has done in just one.”

The historic visit of King Abdullah to India in 2006 injected fresh energy into the countries’ mutual relations, and the “Delhi Declaration” was signed. Then, four years later,  Dr Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, arrived in Saudi Arabia to raise the level of bilateral engagement to a “strategic partnership,” and the “Riyadh Declaration” sealed the time-tested political, economic, security and defense cooperation between the two countries on a more professional pitch.

If the Delhi Declaration of 2006 put emphasis on energy security and terrorism in addition to close cooperation in such sectors as health, research and education, information technology, agriculture and sports, the Riyadh Declaration of 2010 focused, apart from actualizing the Delhi Declaration, on developing knowledge-based economies such as IT, space science and frontier technologies, while cooperating against terrorist activities, money laundering, and trafficking in narcotics,  arms and humans.

For India, Saudi Arabia is vital, since it is its fourth-largest trade partner after China, the US and the United Arab Emirates, providing 19% of India’s energy requirements.

Two-way trade during 2016-17 stood at US$25.079 billion: India’s imports from Saudi Arabia reached $19.94 billion, whereas exports to the kingdom stood at $5.13 billion. In terms of global exports of India, Saudi Arabia’s share stood at 1.86% during 2016-17 , while the kingdom was the source of 5.19% of India’s global imports during the same period.

One significant area that India discussed with King Abdullah in 2006 was the opportunity for Saudi students to pursue postgraduate and doctorate-level studies in higher institutions in India. The prestigious King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP) of 2005 is aimed at providing financial benefits to Saudi graduates and postgraduates to pursue higher studies the US, UK and Australia.

While the US is the most sought-after destination for the KASP, India can provide world-class educational facilities that will be obtainable for Saudi students in terms of cost and distance, and culturally, Saudis can find themselves at home in India because of their long assimilation with Indian teachers and workers.

India’s strategic relations with Saudi Arabia have been affected by the kingdom’s close military and strategic ties with Pakistan. Saudi Arabia’s support to Pakistan’s stance on the Jammu & Kashmir conflict is the biggest hiccup. The Pakistani leadership has taken advantage of emotional bonding on the basis of religion.

Though Saudi Arabia has maintained good relations with the US, Washington’s bias in favor of the Israelis in its dealings with the Israel-Palestine conflict has convinced the kingdom that there is a limit to the bilateral dependence.

When Modi visited Saudi Arabia in April 2016, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stressed that the kingdom’s relations with Pakistan did not come at the expense of its relations with India.

Pakistan’s lead role in the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) of 34 Islamic nations, which deputed General Raheel Sharif, chief of the Pakistan Army, as the commander-in-chief, is perhaps a balancing act to please Pakistan, which is reluctant to join the current war in Yemen. But India may not see it in that light.

Although the Palestinian cause has brought India and Saudi Arabia on to a single platform, Pakistan’s continuing proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir has been a crucial factor in India-Saudi ties. It makes India apprehensive of Pakistan playing a more significant role in Saudi Arabia’s strategic policies.

So far, the close relations between Islamabad and Riyadh have failed to have an impact on Indo-Saudi cooperation, but Pakistan’s rhetoric to mobilize Islamic countries to garner support on Jammu and Kashmir  may affect their bilateral ties, though it seems highly unlikely  that any country in the Middle East will go against India. At the height of the 1970s oil crisis, Saudi Arabia continued to supply 175 million barrels of crude oil annually to India.

Back home in India, however, the usual rhetoric from right-wing parties regarding the myths and misgivings about Saudi Arabia and the atrocities against Indian Muslims have acted as a major block in establishing as close a bond between New Delhi and Riyadh as the latter has with Islamabad.

M Shamsur Rabb Khan is assistant professor in the Department of English, King Khalid University, Abha, Saudi Arabia. He specializes in security issues, foreign relations and terrorism. He is writing a book on right-wing terror in India.