Indian PM visit to Saudi Arabia: Balancing act on various fronts

Modi is set to discuss energy, security and trade cooperation during his ongoing visit to Saudi Arabia...

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ongoing visit to Saudi Arabia is proving to be a balancing act on several fronts but is set to benefit both the sides.

An energy-dependent India has had strong trade relations with the GCC countries and also benefits from the huge remittances – estimated to be around $35 billion every year – sent by its estimated 6-7 million Indians working across the region.

The fact that Modi is scheduled to visit Israel later this year, and his cabinet has already given nod to a spy plane deal with Tel Aviv, gives the ongoing visit an interesting and strategic dimension. On the other hand, India’s petroleum minister, Dharmendra Pradhan, is on his way to Iran later this week, to hammer out final agreement on a deal for the development of a gas field in the Arabian Gulf by an Indian consortium.

Modi’s visit is also being seen as a way to take advantage of arch-rival Pakistan’s relations with the GCC countries, which have taken a hit following Islamabad’s refusal to participate in the conflict in Yemen.

Hours ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Riyadh, it was announced that the US and Saudi Arabia came together to sanction Pakistani individuals and terrorist entities, including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The step has pleased India as it has been demanding such a ban for a long time.

Sounding the right notes at the beginning of the visit, Modi praised Saudi Arabia’s leadership. “He (King Salman) has led Saudi Arabia with great maturity and foresightedness during one of the most challenging times. I have felt that a personal bond of friendship has developed between us over these interactions,” he told Arab News in an exclusive interview. India and Saudi Arabia are both members of the G-20.

'Strategic vacuum'

Talmiz Ahmad, the former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, says the importance of this visit can also be viewed from the prism of a strategic vacuum visible in this part of the world.

“US has backed off from playing political or strategic role in the region and Europe is completely self-absorbed. Moreover, Asia has become the principal market for East Asian energy. All this builds the mutuality of interest between the two sides and calls for fresh ideas,” Ahmad told Al Arabiya English.

Ahmad, who makes a case for India to play a bigger role in the region, says New Delhi is well-placed to play a lead diplomatic role in bringing peace in the region.

In his interview to Arab News, Modi summed up his views on India’s relations with Saudi Arabia, going forward. “Building further on this strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia is one of the foreign policy priorities for our government. I personally believe that our strategic partnership is important for not only our two countries, but also for the peace, progress and stability in our regions and beyond,” he said.