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Saudi royals rediscover India and more

April 17, 2010 03:51 IST

It is being dubbed the rediscovery of India by the all-powerful House of Saud and its latest protagonist, Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, governor of Riyadh and third in line to the throne, has over the last five days in Delhi, Agra and Mumbai reaffirmed the message that terrorism in the name of Islam is not Islamic and that the entire region must be united against jihad.

As the guest of Vice-President Hamid Ansari, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and an Arabist of some repute himself, the red carpet has been pulled out for the Saudi prince, his five sons and a large retinue of businessmen and advisors, across the Indian landscape.

With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh away in the US and subsequently in Brazil all week for summit meetings with the heads of state of Brazil, South Africa, Russia and China, External Affairs Minister S M Krishna has led the political charge with Prince Salman. President Pratibha Patil feted him as did the Jamia Millia University in the capital, where he was awarded an honorary degree.

But, it is the eye-popping nature of the strategic partnership, launched by King Abdullah himself during his visit in 2006 and reaffirmed by the PM during his visit to Saudi Arabia a couple of months ago, that sets this relationship apart from Delhi's every other foreign policy experiment in recent years.

By proposing a regular and upgraded partnership between the two foreign ministries, the intelligence communities as well as between the two National Security Advisers, Delhi and Riyadh are giving teeth to the two declarations signed in these two cities in 2006 and 2010, respectively.

Alongside this revamped political and strategic partnership, India and Saudi Arabia are pushing both their business communities to take advantage of mutually changing perceptions, and invest in areas like infrastructure, energy, industry and services. Prince Salman's encounters with the chambers of commerce in Delhi as well as with key businessmen in Mumbai is in keeping with the belief that trade and investment will lubricate the wheels of politics.

According to Talmiz Ahmad, India's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who has been in the forefront of the partnership revamp, both countries are readying themselves to take the relationship "to the next level".

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to India Faisal Hassan Trad told Business Standard, that "sky is the limit in the India-Saudi relationship and it is not limited to the energy sector".

So far, Ahmad explained, 1.8 million Indians, mostly from the blue-collar working class, sent back as much as $5 billion home in annual remittances. Meanwhile, the government procured about 20 per cent of its petroleum needs from the Saudi kingdom.

But in the "new strategic era" between India and Saudi Arabia, Delhi is hoping that big business will transform the economic landscape, from information technology to energy. "Let me put it like this," said Ahmad, "from the use of Indians to the use of India, that's the nature of the change. It goes much beyond the buying and selling of oil".

Officials from both sides admitted that one big reason for the shift in Saudi Arabia's perception of India was due to the way the world changed after the September 11, 2001 incidents. From being one of only three countries in the world that had recognised the Taliban in Afghanistan (the other two were Pakistan and the UAE), the shock that accompanied the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11 were Saudi nationals, Riyadh's internal overhaul could not avoid the conclusion that the rampant mix of religion and terror was actually a deadly cocktail.

"We were deeply affected by terrorism and we learnt how to deal with it," Trad admitted.

Pakistan's unique relationship with the Saudi kingdom, meanwhile, had been underlined by the belief that "Pakistan and the Pakistan army was a source of stability in the region. But Islamabad's continuing demands for 'strategic depth' in Afghanistan as well as the "moral and diplomatic support" it gave to the Kashmir jehadis, also did not escape Riyadh's notice.

In contrast, India was a large, Muslim nation, but mostly a benign one. Meanwhile, the situation in Afghanistan began to rapidly deteriorate. That's when Delhi began to convey its own message to Riyadh that the Pakistan army was really part of the problem, not the solution, said an Indian official on condition of anonymity.

As the custodian of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, to which 1.6 billion Muslims all over the world looked for guidance and support, King Abdullah's Saudi Arabia embarked upon "a very, very major U-turn" when it began to recognise that India, because of the nature of its open, democratic spirit, actually played a major role in the security and stability of the region, the Indian official added.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Riyadh in February and the follow-up visit of Prince Salman to India, the official said, are manifestations of this new partnership.

Asked whether Saudi Arabia was interested in brokering a solution to the Kashmir dispute, as had been widely reported in the media during the PM's visit to Riyadh, Trad did not give a direct answer. Instead, he said, "We fully understand India's sensitivities and concerns. We also know that progress is not possible without peace," Trad added.

Indian officials, even as they publicly rejected all suggestions of third-party interference to the Kashmir dispute, seem much more accepting in private of Saudi Arabia's enormous influence with Islamabad. "As a good friend of Pakistan, Riyadh can persuade Pakistan to see reason. That would make a huge difference," the officials said.

Jyoti Malhotra in New Delhi
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