Prasanta Kumar Pradhan
Unlike the other world leaders who gathered in New Delhi for the G20 leadership Summit, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia was in India on a State visit. During his visit, he actively engaged in the G20 proceedings; and subsequently conducted bilateral discussions, culminating in the signing of significant agreements between India and Saudi Arabia.
Mohammed bin Salman participated in the first Meeting of the India-Saudi Arabia Strategic Partnership Council (SPC) and co-chaired the meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The SPC was created in 2019 during Modi’s visit to the Kingdom. The SPC meeting, among other issues, discussed bilateral trade, investment, energy, defense and security, healthcare, food security, etc. The wide range of issues discussed between Mohammad bin Salman and Prime Minister Modi reflects the extensive cooperation between the two countries.
The range of discussions also reflects the expanding horizon of cooperation between the two countries. Both countries signed eight agreements including on renewable and non-renewable energy, digitization and electronic manufacturing, banking, and investment. Besides, several MoUs were signed between the private companies of India and Saudi Arabia in the IT, agriculture, health, and energy sectors. The signing of these MoUs between the private sectors will contribute immensely towards the growth of bilateral trade and investment between both countries.
Earlier, Mohammed bin Salman participated in the G20 Summit. One of the most important developments that took place on the sidelines of the Summit was the announcement by India, along with the US, two Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia and the UAE), three European countries (Italy, France, and Germany), and the European Union to establish the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC). This project will connect India to the Gulf region via the shipping route, run through the West Asian region via a rail route to the Mediterranean coast of Israel, and then subsequently connect to Europe.
If executed, this project has the potential to provide a huge boost to economic growth, trade, and connectivity not only to the participating countries but also to their respective neighbourhoods as well. It will take economic integration, connectivity, and sustainable development to a new height.
The agreement on the IMEC (India-Middle East and Europe) in New Delhi follows the meeting of the National Security Advisers of India, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the USA held in Riyadh in May 2023 where the issues of regional connectivity and infrastructure were discussed. India’s National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, participated in the meeting.
The IMEC is portrayed as a strategic move by the participating countries as a challenge to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which is spreading fast across the continents. It has the potential to challenge the Chinese BRI in the long run. However, it would require sustained political will and commitment from all the parties concerned to execute the project.
It must also be kept in mind that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are partners of China in the BRI as well. They have significant collaboration in the trade, investment, and energy sectors. Recently China also mediated between Saudi Arabia and Iran to end their decades-long hostility. Therefore, from their perspective, it looks like the Gulf countries will continue to engage with China in the BRI as well as the new IMEC without embracing one at the cost of the other. Their perception of China differs significantly from that of the USA and India.
In recent years, the relationship between India and Saudi Arabia has grown by leaps and bounds. Both are important players in their respective neighbourhoods. India believes that Saudi Arabia is one of the most important strategic partners, and thus engages in multiple fronts with the Kingdom. Traditionally, the India–Saudi Arabia relationship was dominated by bilateral trade and commerce, India’s energy dependence and the presence of a strong Indian Diaspora in the Kingdom. The total bilateral trade between India and Saudi Arabia stands at US$ 52.76 billion for the year 2022-23 which has doubled since 2016-17 when the bilateral trade was US$ 25.08 billion. India’s energy dependency on Saudi Arabia is deflected from the fact that in 2022-23, India imported crude oil worth US$ 29.07 billion from Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is currently the third-largest supplier of energy to India, after Iraq and Russia.
Defence and security cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia has taken a strong root. The common objective of both countries to fight against terrorism and extremism has been a key factor in strengthening bilateral security cooperation. Similarly, fighting against the menace of piracy and maintaining the safety of the sea Lanes of communication is another common concern for both.
India–Saudi Arabia relationship has received renewed attention under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi. The relationship has benefited from India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and the ‘Think West’ policy adopted by Prime Minister Modi focusing on the West Asian neighbourhood. Mutual visits by Prime Minister Modi and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have contributed to further strengthening of the relationship.
Cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia during the COVID-19 pandemic was yet another reflection of the growing trust between the two. In 2020 when COVID-19 initially began to spread, India sent Hydroxychloroquine tablets and facilitated the travel of Indian healthcare professionals to Saudi Arabia to fight the pandemic. Later in 2021, when India was severely affected by the delta variant of COVID-19 and needed liquid oxygen, Saudi Arabia was one of the countries that supplied liquid oxygen to India. Since then both countries have prioritised health cooperation as an important pillar of cooperation between the two countries. Deepening cooperation in the health sector has been one of the issues discussed during the recently held SPC meeting.
As millions of Indian nationals live in the region, Saudi Arabia has been supportive of India in the evacuation of the Indian citizens who are stuck in the conflict zones. An important example of cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia was witnessed in 2015 when the situation in Yemen worsened and India had to evacuate its nationals from there. Upon the request of the Indian government, the Saudi-led military coalition stopped aerial attacks for a certain period, which allowed India to evacuate its nationals from Yemen.
Under ‘Operation Rahat’ India evacuated more than 4000 people from Yemen, including foreign nationals. Recently, Saudi Arabia supported India to evacuate its nationals from Sudan where a severe armed conflict broke out in the country. India started ‘Operation Kaveri’ to evacuate its stranded nationals from Sudan. Around 3,500 Indians were evacuated through the Jeddah port. The government of India has acknowledged the support it has received from the government of Saudi Arabia in evacuating its nationals from Sudan under ‘Operation Kaveri’.
There has been convergence in the interests and ideas of India and Saudi Arabia on the issues that were discussed during India’s presidency of the G20. The issues such as climate change, green energy, digital payment infrastructure, the need to reform the multilateral institutions, and economic development are some of the important issues, over which India and Saudi Arabia have common interests. Although Saudi Arabia is a petroleum-rich country, it is looking into the future to develop green energy. The Kingdom also faces the challenges of environmental hazards, desertification, and climate change as most of its topography is desert and it does not have a perennial source of water. It has taken initiatives such as the Middle East Green Initiative and Saudi Green Initiative under its ‘Vision 2030’ to combat climate change and achieve a long-term sustainable greener future.
Over the years, Saudi Arabia has emerged as a key strategic partner for India in the West Asian region. The interactions and collaborations between these two nations have transitioned from a conventional buyer-seller relationship to a robust and enduring strategic partnership. The deepening defence and security cooperation, collaborative efforts during the pandemic, assistance in evacuating Indian citizens from conflict zones, and joint initiatives on global challenges such as climate change, green energy, and sustainable development, along with the recent establishment of IMEC, all indicate a growing alignment and a heightened potential for future cooperation between the two countries.
(Dr. Prasanta Kumar Pradhan, Research Fellow and Coordinator, West Asia Centre, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)