India-Saudi Arabia Strategic Tango To Get A Leg-Up

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the former’s visit to New Delhi in February this year.

NEW DELHI: Strategic ties between India and Saudi Arabia are poised to take a significant leap forward during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to Riyadh. The proposal to have a Strategic Partnership Council between the two countries mooted earlier this year is set to take a more concrete shape with the inking of a pact during the PM’s visit on October 29.

The visit comes barely eight months after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman came here on a bilateral visit. PM Modi had visited the Saudi kingdom in 2016 during his first term in office. This visit is also significant in that it comes nearly three months after the government announced revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.

Unlike Turkey and Malaysia that have backed Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, Saudi Arabia has shown “understanding on the recent developments vis-a-vis Kashmir and we hope it will have a salutary effect on Pakistan,” says New Delhi. India hopes that the Saudis will continue to exercise their influence on Islamabad where its fulminations on Kashmir are concerned.

National Security Adviser Ajit Doval visited Saudi Arabia earlier this month the explain the government’s decision on revoking Article 370 from Kashmir and the matter is expected to figure again in discussions during the PM’s visit.

Indicative of the growing strategic salience is the fact that the Council is to be headed by the Indian Prime Minister and the Saudi Crown Prince. While the Council itself will meet once every two years, there will be joint working groups that will work behind the scenes to cement the strategic convergence.

The Council will have two verticals—one co-chaired by the foreign ministers of India and Saudi Arabia while the other will be co-chaired by the commerce/trade ministers of the two countries, said TS Tirumurti, Secretary (multilateral economic relations) in the external affairs ministry. Under the ministers will be the joint working groups. In India, Tirumurti as the Secretary (MER) will be heading the group that will focus on the security and defence dimensions while the other group led by the Niti Aayog will be concentrating on the economic, trade and investment aspects of the relationship.

The thriving relations between New Delhi and Riyadh also mean that energy ties are set to get a boost during the PM’s visit. For India, Saudi Arabia remains a valuable source of oil. The need to look for alternative oil supplies has also become more pressing after India was forced to reduce oil imports from Iran to zero in May this year for fear of U.S. sanctions. “Energy security has been the main area of India’s engagement with Saudi Arabia. We are well on our way to transforming the buyer-seller relationship in this sector into a much larger strategic partnership,” said Tirumurti.

Noting that the West Asian nation has met India’s energy needs on a “reliable and sustainable basis”, Tirumurti said the Saudis have been invited to participate in India’s Strategic Petroleum Reserves and an MoU on this will be inked during the PM’s visit. This is hugely significant as India has a pact for emergency oil reserves only with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co (ADNOC).

There’s more on the energy front. India and Saudi Arabia also hope to “move ahead” on the West Coast refinery in the Raigarh district of Maharashtra. This project will involve investments from Saudi’s ARAMCO, UAE’s ADNOC and Indian public sector oil companies and will be the single largest greenfield refinery in India.

Also on the anvil is an MoU for a joint venture between Indian Oil Middle East and Al Jeri Company of Saudi Arabia for downstream cooperation to set up retail outlets in Saudi Arabia.

India and Saudi Arabia are also hoping to sign an MoU to launch the RuPay card in the kingdom, which is expected to help the huge Indian community there as well as those who go on Hajj and Umrah. Among the Gulf countries, the RuPay card has so far been rolled out in the UAE and Bahrain.

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