Prince Salman’s Visit: Pivoting to India at a Critical Juncture

Focus By Dr Chandra Rekha*


The two countries aim to elevate defence engagement through with joint production and military exercises. The merger of domestic policies is a potential mechanism set to assist both PM Modi's 'Make in India' and Prince Salman's 'Vision 2030' to achieve the defence goal.

Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s visit to Pakistan, India and China within a span of four days demonstrated Saudi Arabia’s an all inclusive Asia strategy. Prince Salman’s maiden State visit to India on February 19-20, 2019 aimed to develop a substantial partnership between India and Saudi Arabia. The visit echoed India’s growing relevance in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy interests due to the longstanding historical links, cultural affinity, market potentials, energy diplomacy, strategic relevance and soft power capabilities. The interaction between Prince Salman and PM Narendra Modi reflected robust optimism as several government to-government pacts were signed in major spheres of cooperation including energy, defence, infrastructure, security, tourism, trade and investment.

The Asia tour of Prince Salman took place at a critical juncture for many reasons. Firstly, given the geopolitical contentions in West Asia, Prince Salman’s official reflects Saudi Arabia’s reassessment of its foreign policy priorities and the need to expand its regional profile. Secondly, Prince Salman has been widely condemned by the international community over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate in October 2018. This has strained the strategic partnership between Saudi Arabia and the West especially the US. Thirdly, in a time of global transition, there is a growing sense of optimism in Saudi Arabia’s need to pursue a more diversified foreign policy to expand the country’s regional and global outreach. Fourthly, oil has been a source of power influence for Saudi Arabia as it is the leading oil producer and exporter in the world. However, there are growing signs that its large dependence on petro-economy is moving away from boon to bane for its economic growth as seen in the case of Russia. Therefore, under Prince Salman, the implementation of ‘Vision 2030’- a centralised development plan largely focuses on diversification of economic revenue source such as tourism, housing, investment etc. Lastly, ‘pivot to Asia’ policy has become the new mantra for countries whose foreign policy interests’ primary focus has been to increase regional profile while geopolitics of Asia at large has occupied a tertiary position. Saudi Arabia’s regional arrangement in West Asia is being challenged today given the intensity of extra-regional actors such as Turkey and Russia and traditional partners such as US overseeing Saudi Arabia’s interests while pursuing its own unilateral policies.

Prince Salman’s visit to India has therefore reaffirmed his growing focus on expansion of strategic outreach in which India occupies a pivotal status. India too has high stakes in West Asia and given Saudi Arabia’s regional position in West Asia has only strengthened the longstanding bilateral engagement. The creation of the Strategic Partnership Council during the visit reaffirmed the relevance of the partnership as visualised in Delhi Declaration 2006 during the visit of king Abdullah and the Riyadh Declaration in 2010 during former PM Dr Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Modi’s visit in April 2016.

Prince Salman’s recent visit witnessed the signing of key Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the two countries that includes:

  • MoU on investing in the National Investment and Infrastructure Fund of India to expand bilateral economic cooperation.
  • MoU on cooperation in the field of Tourism.
  • MoU on cooperation in the field of Housing.
  • Framework cooperation programme between Invest India and Saudi Arabia General Investment Authority (SAGIA).
  • MoU for cooperation on Broadcasting for exchange of Audio-Visual Programmes.
  • Agreement for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to join the International Solar Alliance (ISA) launched by Honourable Prime Minister Modi.

The signing of various agreements between India and Saudi Arabia is a follow up of the already existing arrangements signed between the two countries such as the MoU signed in Riyadh on February 28, 2010 between Centre for Development of Advance Computing (C-DAC) and King Abdulaziz City for Science & Technology (KACST) on cooperation in Information Technology and Services, MoU on the Establishment of Joint Business Council between Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry (CSCCI) and Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) signed on January 25, 2006. MoU on Defence Cooperation signed in New Delhi on 26 February 2014 and many more.

The outcome of the visit by Prince Salman to India was deep and engaging for the following reasons:

Strong Denunciation of Terrorism- Prince Salman’s visit to India faced a glitch post the suicide attack on the CRPF convoy at Pulwama killing 40 jawans. The terror attack which was carried out by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad was strongly criticised by India for harbouring terrorist outfits in its territory. Concurrently, Prince Salman was in Pakistan during this sensitive moment that also saw the signing of MoUs between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan worth $20 billion. However, the important take away from Prince Salman’s visit to India was the call to work together along with international community to denounce terrorism and countries harbouring terrorist organisations. To bolster their stand against terrorism, India and Saudi Arabia aimed to establish a ‘Comprehensive Security Dialogue’ at the level of National Security Advisors and set up a Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism.

Enhance Economic Footprint: India is a huge market and largely an import oriented country. The signing of economic and investment pacts has portrayed Saudi Arabia’s appetite to enhance its economic footprint in India. India-Saudi trade increased 9.56% to $27.48 billion in 2017-18. Indian businesses are vital for Saudi Arabia for joint ventures and large scale investments. The two countries also identified nearly 40 potential areas for joint collaboration and investments across various sectors. In order to eliminate trade barriers, the visit focused on relaxation of rules for business and trade investments for export and to gain access in both domestic and regional markets. The two leaders welcomed the Workshop between NITI Aayog and Saudi Centre for International Strategic Partnership (SCISP) held in Riyadh.

Energy Diplomacy- The US’ unilateral actions has come heavily on its partners especially India with the introduction of CAATSA sanctions thus putting pressure to reduce it energy imports from Iran. This has provided a window of opportunity to oil exporting countries such as Saudi Arabia to up the ante. Saudi kingdom currently has seen a rise of 9.46 percent in oil imports to India since the imposition of sanctions on Iran. Given India’s growing energy demands, the visit promised transforming India’s West coast into a petrochemical export hub, guaranteeing fuel linkage between the two countries. The two sides also focused on continuation of the India-Saudi Arabia Energy consultations and focus on investment and joint ventures in petrochemical complexes.

Defence Cooperation: The two countries aim to elevate defence engagement through joint production and military exercises. The merger of domestic policies is a potential mechanism set to assist both PM Modi’s ‘Make in India’ and Prince Salman’s ‘Vision 2030’ to achieve the defence goal. In this direction, the two countries have agreed to ‘cooperate and collaborate in joint defence production of spare parts for Naval and Land systems as well as supply chain development’ including holding naval drills.

Other prospective areas of cooperation explored during the visit were tourism, aviation industry, Indian Ocean Rim for enhancing maritime security, technical cooperation on cyber space; promote reformed multilateralism, global governance etc. Prince Salman also agreed to increase the quota for Hajj pilgrims from India to 200,000. Following the visit, India has agreed a 40% hike in quota in foreign flying rights to Saudi Arabia from April 1, 2019.

The first State visit by Prince Salman to India has marked a new era of cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia. With both India and Saudi Arabia focused to widen the scope of bilateral engagement, the two countries may balance each other’s interests but at the same time not oversee the sensitivities too. Given the domestic social and economic reforms that Saudi Arabia is undergoing under Prince Salman, it has opened opportunities for both the countries to further enhance the existing cooperation. However, the task ahead is to put into action the promising MoUs and agreements signed between the two countries with time to time stock taking for effective outcomes.

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