In a sign of how dramatically India’s ties with the largest nation in the Gulf have evolved in the last few years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Saudi Arabia last week for his second visit in three years. If during his first visit in 2016, King Salman conferred Saudi Arabia’s highest civilian award on him, his second visit saw him participate in the high-profile Future Investment Initiative Summit, dubbed ‘Davos in the Desert,’ an initiative of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The crown prince had also visited India earlier this year in February. The fact that this visit happened against the backdrop of India’s decision to abrogate Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan’s desperate attempt to internationalise the issue makes Modi’s visit to Riyadh even more significant. In Riyadh, Modi made a strong pitch seeking investment in India’s energy sector by underlining that India will be investing around $100 billion in oil and gas infrastructure by 2024 in creating additional oil refining capacity, laying new pipelines and building gas import terminals to meet the energy needs of an economy that he wants to nearly double in size in five years. India is the source of the largest expatriate community in Saudi Arabia, with a 2.6 million-strong Indian diaspora.
He reached out to the community by underlining that “India is proud of the place that you have made for yourself in the Kingdom, and your hard work and commitment have helped to generate a lot of goodwill for the overall bilateral relationship.” India’s sustained outreach to Saudi Arabia has paid rich dividends on the political front, with Riyadh taking a positive approach on the Kashmir question since the Modi government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 on August 5. Unlike Turkey and Malaysia, it has cautioned Pakistan against escalating the crisis. Despite Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan making a personal visit to Riyadh and traditionally close Saudi-Pakistan ties, Saudi Arabia has signalled that it understood Indian concerns and sensitivities on the issue. Pragmatism is dictating the Saudi posture as the very future of the Saudi economic model is at stake. It needs new partners like India. It is not without significance that within a week of India’s move in Kashmir in August, one of the biggest ever foreign investments in the country was announced.
Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL)’s decision to sell a 20% stake in its oil-to-chemicals business to Saudi Aramco at an enterprise value of $75 billion made it one of the biggest Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) deals in the country. Both India and Saudi Arabia are re-defining their foreign policy priorities at a time of global and regional turmoil. For New Delhi, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states are becoming key interlocutors in the Middle East. And for Riyadh, India is one of the eight major powers with which it wants to forge strategic partnerships as part of its Vision 2030. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is a new energy in India-Saudi bilateral partnership.