India’s tryst with Saudi Arabia dates back to nearly five millennia when Indian sailors and merchants made regular forays in to the Arabian peninsula and forged commercial, cultural and civilisational links. In recent times, the relationship between the two countries has been marked by an upswing in the strategic partnership.
One of the starting points of this defining relationship was the Delhi Declaration signed on 27 January 2006 when King Abdullah paid a state visit to India and was the Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day Celebration that year. This was followed by the Riyadh Declaration of 2010 when the then Prime Minster Dr. Manmohan Singh made a return visit to Riyadh. Under these two declarations, the two countries not only accelerated exchange of visits at the official, ministerial, business, academic and political levels, they pledged to cooperate proactively on security, defence, economic and political areas. These included: developing knowledge-based economics commensurate with advances in space sciences, frontier techniques, research and development, information and technology, Science and Technology and peaceful uses of outer space. As part of strengthening strategic partnership, India and Saudi Arabia through Saudi-India Business Council formulated ambitious plans to create investment opportunities in infrastructure and energy sectors.
The relationship has received a boost also due to the fact that Saudi Arabia’s economy is among the fastest growing economies of the world. As per The Global Competitiveness Report released in September 2014, Saudi Arabia was ranked 24th among the 144 countries reviewed by the reputed World Economic Forum. To attract foreign investors, Saudi government also offered 100 percent investment ownership with no restrictions on capital transfer and low-cost industrial loans up to 75 percent of capital. To put things in comparative context, Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth largest trade partner and the fifth largest export destination. For Saudi Arabia, India is the second largest market for its oil exports (except China), the fifth largest market for its total exports and the seventh largest source of its imports. While India imports nearly 20 percent of crude oil from Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority has issued over 400 licenses to Indian industrial houses to set up enterprises in areas such as telecom, IT, pharmaceuticals, construction, travel and tourism.
India’s expatiate community in Saudi Arabia that has numbered close to three million have also played a pivotal role in shaping the strategic partnership by being a model group and being recognized for skills, innovation, competence and commitment to excellence.
In the Riyadh Declaration (which was also followed by other high level ministerial visits subsequently) both the countries resolved to combat terrorism and agreed to enhance level of cooperation in exchange of information relating to terrorist activities, money laundering, arms and human trafficking, narcotics as well as signing of the extradition treaty and the Agreement for Transfer of Sentenced Prisoners.
In the February 2014 visit of the then Crown Prince H.E. Salman to Delhi, both the countries signed MoUs that would allow defence-related information sharing, military training and education as well as cooperation in areas varying from hydrography and security to logistics. India also suggested that the Royal Saudi Navy can play a vital role in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) Construct.
Saudi-India ties received a new boost with staging of an Indian Air Force flying contingent at the King Fahd Air Base in Taif in August 2015. The mission, comprising more than 100 high-ranking IAF officials and airmen from Sukhoi MK I fighter aircrafts, C-17 Globe Masters, C-130 Super Hercules and IL- 78 aircrafts, underscored the close defence ties between Saudi Arabia and India. There have been frequent goodwill visits by the Indian Navy ships to the ports of Jeddah and Jubail and have had transport aircrafts using Saudi Arabia as transit point. Both countries have regularly exchanged high level delegations for furthering cooperation between the two armed forces. Officers from both countries have been attending courses in their pursuit of shared learning to bolster security in their respective spheres of activity. Very recently, Prime minister Narendra Modi has publicly acknowledged and thanked Saudi King Salman for the assistance rendered by Saudi Arabia that resulted in the safe evacuation of Indian nationals from Yemen.
Overall, both in terms of the ambience and substance, strategic cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia is robust and gaining strength. However, it is to be remembered that the West Asian region, including the Arabian peninsula, has been witnessing shifting alliances, sectarian polarisation and the possibility of emergence of terrorist and insurgent outfits such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. To what extent Saudi Arabia will cope with internal and external challenges and to what extent the geo-strategic environment will tilt and in which direction will determine the future contours of the ongoing defence and strategic cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia.