Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at Hyderabad House, New Delhi
Md. Muddassir Quamar
The recent visit of Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammed Bin-Salman to India was remarkable for several reasons. It was the second visit by the Crown Prince to India and the first after the world faced the devastating impact of the Covid-19 global healthcare crisis. His State Visit was combined with the G20 Summit . The Saudi leader held delegation-level talks with his Indian counterpart Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Notably, Saudi Arabia is one of the two G20 members (the other being Türkiye) from Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, and being the largest regional economy, it has a special place in India’s strategic outreach towards the region.
India and Saudi Arabia have in recent years enhanced their diplomatic and political engagements towards strengthening trade, business, investments, security and defence ties. The latest visit of Crown Prince Bin-Salman was focused on deliberations on issues of mutual interest and taking stock of the progress of the Strategic Partnership Council launched during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Riyadh in October 2019. The visit acquired significance in the context of the historic announcement during the G20 summit of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEEEC) as a multi modal transport corridor for enhancing connectivity and trade between the three regions in partnership with the United States and G7 through the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment.
The State visit on September 11, 2023 began with Crown Prince and Prime Minister Bin-Salman receiving a ceremonial welcome at the Rashtrapati Bhavan before proceeding to the high-level meeting with Prime Minister Modi. The Crown Prince was accompanied by a large ministerial and business delegation. During their meeting, Modi and Bin-Salman reviewed the progress in bilateral relations and co-chaired the First Leaders’ Meeting of the Strategic Partnership Council including its two ministerial committees, namely the Committee on Political, Security, Social and Cultural Cooperation and the Committee on Economy and Investments Cooperation.
Among the issues discussed during the meeting were enhancing bilateral cooperation in areas such as energy, defence, security, transportation, healthcare, education, technology, tourism and cultural cooperation as well as in the area of space and semiconductors. Moreover, the two sides discussed enhancing institutionalised cooperation in start-up and fintech sectors while agreeing to explore possibilities for electricity grid interconnections. The discussion further explored the possibilities for trading in local currencies and expediting the India-GCC free trade agreement (FTA) talks.
Eight MoUs/agreements were signed during the visit including on developing a comprehensive energy partnership. India and Saudi Arabia have a strong bilateral cooperation in the energy sector. Saudi Arabia is one of India’s largest oil suppliers and the aim of the comprehensive energy partnership is to develop a mutually beneficial cooperative mechanism in the energy sector for a greener and sustainable future, while simultaneously exploring joining of electricity and gas grids and undersea optical fibre connectivity. The MoU is targeted at enhancing cooperation in the areas of renewable energy, energy efficiency, hydrogen, electricity, and grid interconnection as well as petroleum, natural gas, strategic petroleum reserves and energy security. The two sides discussed and agreed to expedite the realisation of the Westcoast refinery projects launched in 2017 by a consortium of three Indian national oil companies in partnership with Saudi Aramco and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
Among the other important decisions taken during the deliberations between Modi and Bin-Salman was formation of a joint task force for finding ways to expedite the US$100 billion Saudi investment plan in India, first announced in February 2019. Besides, agreements/MoUs were signed in the areas of digitalisation and electronic manufacturing, for cooperation among anti-corruption agencies of the two countries as well as between the EXIM banks and the national archives. An MoU was signed for cooperation in the field of small and medium enterprises, while the two countries also agreed to explore cooperation opportunities in desalinisation sector.
Defence and security cooperation is another area where India and Saudi Arabia have significantly enhanced cooperation in recent years, and the two sides have enhanced military-to-military engagements through joint exercises, regular bilateral visits and meetings among military leaders. They have also been exploring opportunities for cooperation in defence manufacturing. Besides, the two National Security Advisors have met at regular intervals and there is greater intelligence sharing among the two countries towards counterterrorism cooperation and partnership in fighting radicalism, combating organised crime and preventing terror financing.
During the deliberations between Modi and Bin-Salman, India and Saudi Arabia reaffirmed their commitment towards greater bilateral cooperation in the field of education through developing connections among various universities and higher education institutions as well as through student exchanges and joint research projects. Healthcare, tourism and culture were other areas where the two sides agreed to enhance cooperation including through joint skill development programmes and joint film making.
An investment forum with over 500 business participation from Saudi Arabia was organised on the sidelines of the visit of Crown Prince Bin-Salman in partnership with Saudi Ministry of Investment and Invest India and Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce (FICCI) with a focus on themes such as ICT and entrepreneurship, chemicals and fertilizers, food security, advance manufacturing and energy and sustainability. Several agreements among private companies towards investments and business cooperation were reportedly signed during the investment forum.
Saudi Arabia is one of the leading global partners of India. The bilateral partnership is based on the commonality of the world views and the converging visions of the leadership on achieving prosperity and stability for the people of respective countries. With these goals in mind, India under Prime Minister Modi has worked towards bringing rapid financial and regulatory reforms to enhance India’s attractiveness as a global business hub and this has shown results by way of the country attaining fast economic growth. Saudi Arabia under King Salman and Crown Prince Bin-Salman too has undertaken exceptional measures to introduce economic and social reforms under the Vision 2030 programme with mega-economic projects and massive changes in improving trade, business and socio-economic conditions in the Kingdom. This has resulted in Saudi Arabia emerging as one of the world’s fastest growing big economies. Hence, there is a natural attractiveness in developing economic partnership between the two countries.
India and Saudi Arabia are natural partners being the regional leaders and emerging powers that hold geopolitical influence in respective regions that have traditionally been the centres of business and trade in Asia. In this regard, the signing of the IMEEEC is a significant developments as this promises to revive the age-old centrality of the Gulf and Middle East as the trade and transit hub between the Indian subcontinent and the Mediterranean regions.
The visit of Crown Prince Bin-Salman combined with the G20 summit underlines the growing convergence of Indian and Saudi economic and strategic interests boosting the already strong bilateral ties. It holds immense promise for the future especially as India and Saudi Arabia look to seek a shared future of prosperity and stability for their citizens.
The author is Associate Professor of Middle East studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.