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Think West: India’s Gulf ties on an upswing
January 26, 2017, 10:25 am

Spiritual home of Islam and the world’s energy powerhouse, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf ’s most powerful economy, rolled out the red carpet early April to welcome India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his maiden visit to the country that has culminated in version 2.0 of India’s multifarious relations with not just Riyadh, but also with the strategically important region.

The atmospherics surrounding the visit symbolised a new energy and dynamism in relations between the two countries. Flags of India and Saudi Arabia, home to nearly three-million strong Indian diaspora, fluttered in the balmy desert breeze at the city square and on streets leading to the majestic King Saud Guest Palace where the Saudi monarch hosted the Indian leader and his entire delegation.

The two-day visit by PM Modi to Saudi Arabia (2-3 April), the first trip by an Indian Prime Minister to the world’s largest producer of oil after a gap of six years, pitched the India-Saudi strategic, economic and energy ties onto a higher trajectory, and buttressed four key pillars of India-Saudi relationship: energy, business, security and diaspora.

Boosting strategic and security cooperation

The primary takeaway was a marked deepening of strategic and security partnership, with the two countries signaling a paradigm shift in their counter-terror cooperation by signing a crucial pact to target terror financing, and calling jointly for dismantling sanctuaries of terror. The first full-spectrum talks between PM Modi and the Saudi monarch King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at the Royal Court in Riyadh on April 3 culminated in an all-embracing template for intensifying counter-terror cooperation that includes intelligence-sharing, joint action against illegal transfer of money and capacity-building to bolster cooperation in law enforcement, anti-money laundering, drugtrafficking and other transnational crimes. In a striking illustration of converging perceptions, the leaders of India and Saudi Arabia “rejected totally any attempt to link this universal phenomenon to any particular race, religion or culture.” According to the joint statement, “They called on all states to reject the use of terrorism against other countries; dismantle terrorism infrastructures where they happen to exist and to cut off any kind of support and financing to the terrorists operating and perpetrating terrorism from their territories against other states; and bring perpetrators of acts of terrorism to justice.”

Support for CCIT

Significantly, Saudi Arabia agreed to work with India and the international community towards the adoption of India’s proposed Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism in the United Nations. Taking the long view, the two sides decided to blend intensified counterterror cooperation with joint efforts to promote cooperation in cyber security, including prevention of use of cyber space for terrorism, radicalisation and for disturbing social harmony. This enhanced counterterror cooperation comes in the backdrop of the rise of the IS in the volatile Middle East region and shared apprehensions about potential terror strikes against India and Saudi Arabia emanating from different terror outfits. The pact to curb terror will reinforce recent trends of cooperation that has generated much goodwill in India.

Besides anti-terror cooperation, India and the Gulf ’s most powerful country also decided to bolster defense cooperation which will entail exchange of visits by military personnel and experts, conducting joint military exercises, exchanging visits of ships and aircrafts and supplying arms and ammunition and their joint development. Maritime security is also set to acquire greater salience, with the two countries declaring their intent to enhance maritime security cooperation in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean region.

Business Bonding

The talks in Riyadh marked a qualitative transformation of India-Saudi relations which will bring the two countries closer not only in the security realm, but will also widen the canvas of their economic partnership. In this regard, PM Modi’s meeting with 30 top Saudi CEOs and Indian business leaders at the plush Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce in the heart of Riyadh was an important exercise to change the narrative of India and the ease of doing business in the world’s fastest growing economy. Underlining his commitment to enhance the ease of doing business in India, PM Modi pitched for a more diversified economic relationship, focused on joint investments and exploring new areas like renewables. “From petroleum to renewable energy, infrastructure, defense and agriculture, there is a tremendous opportunity for expanding our cooperation,” he added.

With Saudi Arabia planning to set up $2 trillion fund, PM Modi invited Saudi Arabia to be a partner in India’s growth story and encouraged Saudi Aramco, SABIC and other Saudi companies to invest in the infrastructure sector in India and to participate in projects creating mega industrial manufacturing corridors, smart cities as well as the Digital India and Start up India programs. In this context, the signing of the framework agreement between the General Investment Authority in Saudi Arabia and Invest India will spur investments by the private sectors in the two countries. In a cheering assurance for India, Saudi Aramco is looking at India as its No. 1 target for investment.

“The two leaders agreed to transform the buyer-seller relationship in the energy-sector to one of a deeper partnership focussing on investment and joint ventures in petrochemical complexes, and cooperation in joint exploration in India, Saudi Arabia and in third countries,” said the joint statement. PM Modi’s trip to Saudi Arabia coalesced multiple strands of India’s Think West policy, which entails accelerated across-the-spectrum engagement with the West Asia region, the source of over 60 percent of India’s energy supplies and home to nearly eight million-strong Indian community.

 Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi’s visit to India

This Think West policy has coincided with the Act East policy by the Gulf countries, which are looking at the India opportunity anew, a new synergy which has also been reflected in the visits by PM Modi to the UAE in August last year, and the return visit by Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to India (10-12 February, 2016). In a special gesture, PM Modi received him at the airport, signifying India’s intent to scale up the India-UAE relationship. The big takeaway from the Crown Prince’s visit was an upgradation of economic partnership and the unveiling of a concrete plan to rope in the UAE as a preferred partner in India’s growth story.

PM Modi invited UAE companies to participate in projects creating mega industrial manufacturing corridors, including the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, and also invited UAE to participate in the Digital India and Start up India programs. Building on the Infrastructure Fund unveiled during PM Modi’s trip to Dubai last year, the UAE has underlined interest in investing in infrastructure development in India, especially in priority areas such as railways, roads, ports, and shipping, which is crucial in reaching the $75 billion target for UAE investments in India’s infrastructure development plans. Another important development was the decision by Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and the Indian Strategic Petroleum Reserves Ltd. (ISPRL) to conclude negotiations for establishing a Strategic Petroleum Reserve in India in near future.

The security and strategic cooperation between India and UAE is set to be enhanced with plans to expand cooperation in counter-terrorism, maritime security, and cyber-security. Additionally, the two countries are looking to identify projects for the joint production of defense equipment in India.

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