Many security-related agreements will be signed between India and Saudi Arabia during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the country, Saudi Ambassador to India Faisal-al-Trad tells Aditi Phadnis
You’ve come to India only recently. How do you find living here?
My last posting was in Japan. I am edging towards the end of my professional life and would like to retire from India. There is much in common between our two countries. People who made the new Saudi Arabia came to Mumbai years ago to study. We’ve had cultural and historical relations for a long time, but diplomatic relations were established only in the 1950s. After Indira Gandhi’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 1983, we had King Abdullah come to India in 2006 as the chief guest for the Republic Day. This began a new chapter, a very important chapter in the relationship between the two countries. Now Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is to visit Saudi Arabia in the first quarter of this year, so that will be another big event.
The fastest growth in trade between our two countries has been seen in the period between 2000 and 2010. Between 2000 and 2008, trade went up from $1.5 billion to $27 billion. Indian imports went up sharply , the main reason was India’s energy needs. This was underscored by the Delhi Declaration, the first time a joint declaration was signed between Saudi Arabia and any other country — we don’t really sign declarations. Because King Abdullah was the King, he signed. As the document was signed by the King and the prime minister, it needed no other endorsement. Since then, many committees and commissions have been set up in the economic, political, security and trade area. In February, New Delhi will host a conclave of all Arab countries and ministers of nine Arab nations will be here to discuss trade and commerce with India.
Saudi Arabia has launched some major infrastructure development programmes…
Yes, we have an important document — the National Industrial Strategy of Saudi Arabia, 2020. This is a challenge. Sixty to 65 per cent of our income comes from the sale of oil. The challenge is to shift investment to manufacturing. We have the lowest per-unit cost of electricity in the world. We are creating new economic cities — four are already up and running.
Forty-five per cent of our population is below 15 years of age. 30 per cent is between 25 and 50. So we are a nation of the young. To avoid pressure on the economy, they have to find employment. So, we need industrial and infrastructural development.
What are you proposing for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit?
Many agreements are to be signed. One will be on security issues between the Ministry of Home Affairs and our interior ministry. This relates to Indian undertrials and prisoners. We find Indians by-and-large law-abiding. Of all prisoners in Saudi Arabia, only 0.01 per cent are Indians — I think there are 700 awaiting trial and 700 convicted. So we will sign an extradition treaty and also one that will enable Indian undertrials to undergo trial in India.
Things are changing in Saudi Arabia in respect of laws and regulations. But Indians are a set of people who face the least problems, they are generally law-abiding. When I look on the roads, I find, despite crowds, Indians don’t fight with each other, they don’t lose their temper, they are humble and patient. In lighter vein, I think it also has something to do with the food: Indian food is so spicy, Indian people spend a lot of their energy calming their insides! But there are bad people everywhere and the two agreements are to deal with them. Mostly, it is people whose papers are not in order. And, of course, for the more serious crimes like drugs, we do have capital punishment.
The other agreement will be an extradition treaty to send wanted or criminal elements to India. Saudi Arabia respects human rights. We don’t just arrest people and keep them in jail without trial. But, subject to human rights regulations, an extradition treaty will also be signed (during Prime Minister Singh’s visit).
Then we will set up a joint private sector investment fund with a corpus of $750 million.
And, we hope to increase the number of Saudi students studying in India. Currently, there are about 350 Saudi students here.
You had recently tightened visa laws only for Indians. You wanted them to produce a police verification document…
We did not tighten laws; only reviewed them. In India alone, we issue 600,000 visas for visits and employment. I am not counting visas for Haj, which is 170,000. There are 365 recruitment agencies that are listed with our Embassy in New Delhi, besides over 400 in Mumbai. We have to undertake thorough investigations whether these agencies are genuine or not — we found some existing only on paper. And, there is the verification of those they send to our country. So police verification is one way. This is not new.
Yes, but earlier it was self declaration. Now you want the police to do the verification.
Yes, but when we seek visas from other countries, we even have to give our thumb prints! All we’re asking for is: when you get your passport, you get a police verification certificate. Get them to sign as part of the visa request.
Returning to trade, what about crude?
Before 2006, there was barely any crude import by India from Saudi Arabia. India got it from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But after 2006, Saudi Arabia has edged past the UAE to become the biggest supplier of crude to India. Today, you get 500,000-600,000 barrels of crude a day from Saudi Arabia, in comparison to barely a few thousands earlier.
Indian manufacturers and suppliers could now be big winners, as a Saudi Aramco procurement subsidiary has opened an office ten days ago.
This will make it easier for Indian manufacturers and suppliers to provide materials and equipment to Saudi Aramco for use in its industrial facilities and massive construction projects. It will boost Indian exports to Saudi Arabia in a big way.
Saudi Arabia has undertaken important social reforms. Do you think this is enough?
People often ask us: Why are you not going faster? I tell them, we, like India, have thousands of years of history. We are not like the US, 200 years old. So, it is not a matter of pushing a button and watching the change happen. I remember, when King Faisal opened the first girls’ school in my country, there was an outcry. But, he said, it was a matter of choice; those who did not want to send their daughters to school, did not have to. He told a reporter: “When the people are ready, things will happen.” What happened was real change — slowly but surely. Modernity is sometimes very dangerous. Because, sometimes modernity can cause your values to be lost.
India’s Muslims have gone through some tumultuous times. Do you worry about Muslims in India?
In the world’s oldest democracy, I don’t have to worry about Muslims.