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Special Interview: India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar says closer Saudi-Indian ties are ‘good for us, good for the world’

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia and India approach their relations with the broader global context in mind, Dr. S. Jaishankar told Arab News in an exclusive interview during his first official visit to the Kingdom as as Foreign Minister of India.

“In a world that has experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, conflicts like the one in Ukraine or climatic events, it is essential that our relationship become a growing factor of stability. It’s good for us, good for the region and good for the world.

He added: “The objective of both countries is to identify complementarities that allow us to expand our cooperation as quickly as possible. This would require collaborative activities, mutual investments, coordinated policies and greater mobility.

Relations between Saudi Arabia and India have historically been strong, with Indians constituting the largest community of foreign workers in the Kingdom and one of the largest sources of remittances from their home countries. Some 200,000 pilgrims from India, where Islam is the second largest religion, traveled to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj before the pandemic hit in 2019.

Dr. S. Jaishankar speaking to Arab News in an exclusive interview during his first official visit to the Kingdom. (AN Photo/Huda Bashatah)

For its part, Saudi Arabia has always been among the top three energy suppliers to India, the world’s third largest oil importer and consumer. Both are also members of the G20 intergovernmental forum as well as the Non-Aligned Movement.

In recent years, relations between Saudi Arabia and India have expanded into other areas, including security, trade, investment, health, food security, culture and defence. The two governments have remained in close contact during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are important players in the emerging multipolar world order and there are several areas where our two countries are working together,” Jaishankar said. “India is a big economy and our goal remains the economic growth and development of over 1.3 billion people in India. It also gives a great opportunity for Saudi Arabia to invest in India and work with us for the mutual benefit of both countries.

Elaborating on this crucial aspect of Saudi Arabia-India relations, Jaishankar said, “India and Saudi Arabia are major economies and play an important role in shaping the global economy. The two countries are significant economic partners, with trade valued at around $42.86 billion during the fiscal year (April 2021 to March 2022). »

He continued: “This partnership plays a stabilizing role in the region. The two countries share several synergies in the economic field. For example, the two are crucial energy partners and there are immense opportunities to increase investment in both directions.

Jaishankar with his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan. (MOFA of Saudi Arabia)

He added: “Energy has been a mainstay of our cooperation for several decades. We not only want to continue to develop this, but also extend it to the field of renewable energies, including “green” hydrogen.

A career diplomat who served as India’s foreign minister before his induction into the cabinet in 2019, Jaishankar credits “the vision and guidance provided by (Indian) Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “for the strengthening of Saudi Arabia. relationship with India.

“Their respective visits in 2019 to Saudi Arabia and India gave a great boost to the bilateral relationship and this has continued despite the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic,” he said.

“These visits led to the formation of the crucial Saudi-India Strategic Partnership Council, which reflects the mutual desire of both countries to raise the level of this relationship. Today, our bilateral partnership covers almost all areas of cooperation , including political, security, defence, economic, energy, cultural and interpersonal relations.

On Monday, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received Jaishankar in Jeddah. During the meeting, he delivered a letter from the Prime Minister of India to the Crown Prince.

The day before, Jaishankar co-chaired with his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the inaugural ministerial meeting in Riyadh of the Committee for Political, Security, Social and Cultural Cooperation, established within the framework of the Strategic Partnership Council .

Explaining the functioning of the bilateral body, he said, “Formed in October 2019, the Strategic Partnership Council comprises two sub-committees. The first is the PSSC Committee and the second is the Economy and investments.

“The current ministerial meeting I came for (in Saudi Arabia) is that of the Committee on the PSSC, which focuses on several important areas of bilateral cooperation and has four joint working groups.

“The joint working groups focus on bilateral cooperation in political and consular, legal and security, social and cultural, and defense areas. The agenda for this ministerial meeting would cover all these areas.

Jaishankar said he was pleased with the increase in Saudi foreign direct investment in India from less than $50 million in 2014 to around $3.15 billion currently. “Many large Indian companies are also engaged in business in Saudi Arabia. We have strengthened our cooperation in areas such as health security, food security, education and technology,” he said.

“Our cooperation during the pandemic has taught us important lessons about health security and supply chains. We can build on this experience to be better prepared to meet such challenges in the future. Our two countries can also collaborate in the Kingdom Vision 2030, where the Kingdom can benefit from India’s skilled workforce, entrepreneurs and technology.

Dr. S.Jaishankar visited Diriyah Gate Development Authority. Upon his arrival, he was greeted by Abdullah Al Ghanem, Advisor to the Director General of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority Project. Jaishankar was briefed by DGDA officials about the project and ongoing renovations. (Provided)

According to Jaishankar, given the above “synergies”, one of the verticals of the Strategic Partnership Council focuses on economy and investments. The four joint working groups of this subcommittee discussed cooperation in the areas of agriculture and food security, energy, technology and information technology, and industry. and infrastructure.

During their meetings, Prince Faisal and Jaishankar undertook a comprehensive review of bilateral relations and discussed progress made under the Committee’s four joint working groups on the PSSC. The two sides also reportedly discussed regional and international issues of common interest, including their cooperation at the UN, G20 and Gulf Cooperation Council.

“India regards the Gulf region as its extended neighborhood and that naturally means shared interests with Saudi Arabia in the areas of security and defence. We have been constantly enhancing our cooperation in these areas in the spirit of our strategic partnership,” Jaishankar said.

“On defence, we have had exchange visits at army commander level over the past two years and we also had our first joint naval exercise last year. Our Joint Defense Cooperation Commission met a few months ago and identified further areas of cooperation. The Indian defense industry offers exciting opportunities for co-production and investment and this is an area where we hope to make further progress with Saudi Arabia.

Stressing the importance of security cooperation between the two governments, he said, “India has been a victim of cross-border terrorism for decades. Saudi Arabia has had its own challenges and experiences.

“As terrorism knows no borders or religion and poses a threat to humanity, it is only natural that India and Saudi Arabia should come together to jointly address the threats facing our respective countries. by sharing intelligence, developing new technologies, keeping abreast of the modus operandi of terrorists, and working together in international organizations like the UN and the FATF.

According to Jaishankar, there is a good working relationship “at the highest level of the security architecture of both countries” on the issue of countering terrorist threats. “In addition, within the framework of the Strategic Partnership Council, the two countries have formed a joint working group on legal and security cooperation to collaborate in this area,” he said.

“In the area of ​​maritime security, India and Saudi Arabia have a particular interest given our long coastlines and commercial interests. We have a common goal of keeping maritime communication channels open and ensuring the respect for international law.”

Jaishankar noted with satisfaction the increased naval cooperation between Saudi Arabia and India, pointing out that “our ships have carried out operational turnarounds in Saudi Arabia while Saudi Arabia participated in the multinational exercise MILAN 2022 in Vishakhapatnam in February 2022”.

He added, “Apart from these ship visits, maritime domain information exchange and other training activities also continue. Overall, I see good momentum in our economic, energy, security and defense ties and I am confident of good progress in the years to come.

Looking ahead, Jaishankar expressed hope that his meetings and the upcoming visit of his fellow minister Piyush Goyal, in charge of trade and industry, would set the stage for a meeting in the near future of the Saudi and Indian leaders. . “We believe that the meeting of the Strategic Partnership Council mechanism will be more productive thanks to these preparations,” he said.

While in Riyadh, Jaishankar met with other Saudi dignitaries as well as Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf, the GCC secretary general. Together with representatives from the Indian Embassy, ​​he also visited the cultural sites of Diriyah, the Salwa Palace and the Diriyah Gallery.

Mara R. Wilmoth