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Af-Pak concerns fuel India-Saudi ties on PM's visit

Jyoti Malhotra  |  New Delhi 

An Indian prime minister is visiting Saudi Arabia after 28 years

With 1.8 million Indian workers, $29 billion two-way trade and the assured supply of 20 per cent of India’s petroleum needs, the relationship between India and Saudi Arabia should have been on top of the radar.

Instead, as Prime Minister arrived in the Saudi capital today, the first Indian prime minister since Indira Gandhi visited the oil kingdom in 1982, a slew of largely opaque briefings from the Delhi establishment masked what is promising to be a turning point in India’s ties with the Arab world.

The PM will address the Majlis-e-Shura, the 150-member Shura Council made up of Saudi Arabia’s princely and intellectual elite, itself a singular honour. He is accompanied by a delegation of major Indian business hoping to garner a slice of the $600 billion that Riyadh has put aside for its own modernisation.

And significantly, senior diplomat Latha Reddy, in charge of Saudi Arabia as well as the rest of the Arab world in the Foreign Office, will not wear the ‘abaya’, the all-black, floor-length caftan or the ‘hijab,’ a black veil that covers the head, when she accompanies the PM on his visit that lasts till March 1.

The Saudi concession to the Indian woman diplomat is, admittedly, largely symbolic in nature, but it is a sign of the changing times, both in Riyadh and in Delhi. On the eve of the PM’s trip, government sources said India had agreed to offer 10 per cent equity to Saudi Aramco, the Saudi petroleum company which holds the world’s largest oil reserves, in a refinery being built in Paradip in Orissa.

Saudi Arabia has been one the major suppliers of India’s crude oil needs for the last 25 years, but after King Abdullah’s visit as chief guest on the 2006 Republic Day celebrations, it became the number one supplier, overtaking Iran. The change occurred after India voted against Iran at the in 2005, and sought to diversify its oil relationships. Delhi is keen that the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), a leading manufacturer of fertilisers, plastics and metals, invest in several petro-chemical projects in India.

And during the visit itself — apart from a slew of agreements which include an extradition treaty, exchange of sentenced prisoners, cooperation in outer space — a Saudi investment fund is also expected to be set up.

Abdul Rahman A Al Rabiah, a Saudi businessman also the head of the India-Saudi Business Council, said, “Saudi Arabia was very keen on dynamic business ties with Indian businessmen, in fact there is a convergence of interests between both countries.”

But added, somewhat sorrowfully, that Indian businessmen didn’t want to reciprocate Saudi Arabia’s attention, because they were often consumed with doing business with the Western world. It is clear, however, that profit is not the most important motive that is driving the rapidly warming economic relationship. As the custodian of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina, King Abdullah is keenly aware that Saudi Arabia must play a stabilising role in a region being radically altered by the growing threat of terrorism and the larger-than-life presence of the Americans.

The presence of Talmiz Ahmad, hand-picked by Delhi to return to Saudi Arabia as India’s ambassador, his second such assignment to that country, is another signal that Delhi wants the relationship to be invigorated.

“Security cooperation will constitute the basis of our dialogue. Both countries are extremely concerned about the rise of extremism and violence, directly threatening our security,” Ahmad told journalists on the eve of the PM’s visit. Ahmad said he hoped an “institutionalised dialogue” that ran the gamut of intelligence, defence, energy security and trade would be put into place.

It is rumoured that the head of Saudi intelligence visited India after the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008.

With the Af-Pak frontier being widely acknowledged as the epicenter of jehad, the PM is keenly aware that political and religious heavyweights like King Abdullah must play on the front foot to push reconciliation between the moderate Taliban and the Hamid Karzai government.

For India, stability in Afghanistan is close to the bone. For the third time in three years, Taliban attacks in the heart of Kabul have targetted Indians. The Friday attack on the Safi Landmark hotel in Kabul killed nine Indians, but no Taliban group has so far claimed responsibility. Afghan sources had earlier confirmed that the first attack against the Indiann embassy in 2008 was the handiwork of the Sirajuddin Haqqani group based in North Waziristan in Pakistan, while the second attack in 2009, also against the Indian embassy, was planned and executed by the Lashkar-e-Toiba, also based in Pakistan.

India is keen that Saudi Arabia, with its decades-old ties with Pakistan and Afghanistan – it was one of the three countries in the world, along with Pakistan and the UAE which recognized the Taliban regime in Kabul – can help Islamabad to see that it’s continued linkages with the Taliban are not really in its own strategic interest.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai made much the same request when he was in Riyadh some weeks ago. Karzai’s brother led the first delegation of moderate Afghan Taliban to talks during the Ramzan period in September 2008, upon a request from the Saudi king.

India believes that King Abdullah’s enormous influence in Pakistan, cutting across political lines as well as across the army and civil society, can only positively impact ties between India and Pakistan, recently re-started after a 14-month gap.

At home, thousands of madrassas and several Indian Islamic organisations are said to have received huge finances from Saudi Arabia, notably the Sunni sect, the Ahl-e-Hadith. India’s 170 million Muslim population means that relations with the kingdom are very close, but several observers say they are concerned that the Saudi state’s Wahabi ideology has a profound impact on the more easygoing strains of South Asian Islam.

The observers argued that that was why the PM’s visit to such an influential country was so important. “There’s no point eating lunch with someone who agrees with you on everything. The Saudis are hugely conservative, while India is a raucous democracy, but when both sides find commonalities, it is bound to make a difference to the region,” said an observer who sought anonymity.

First Published: Sun, February 28 2010. 00:12 IST