On Sunday, external affairs minister S Jaishankar held wide-ranging talks with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal Bin Farhan Al Saud, on a host of bilateral and regional issues including developments in Afghanistan.
The visit by the Saudi foreign minister, who during his three-day trip called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, assumes special significance given a few key facts: India has been engaged with all leading powers on the developments in Afghanistan following its takeover by the Taliban; that the Kingdom is a major regional player; and the gradual expansion of defence and security ties between India and Saudi Arabia.
While India's ties with Saudi Arabia, one of the world's leading oil producers and host to nearly three million Indians, have generally been on an upswing based in no small part due to New Delhi's energy requirements, it was only as recently in 2010 that both countries decided to elevate the bilateral engagement to 'Strategic Partnership' covering security, economic, defence and political areas.
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi has elevated that relationship to a different level since taking power in 2014.
PM makes maiden trip, MBS reciprocates
In 2016, Modi made his maiden two-day visit to the oil-rich Saudi kingdom to firm up a raft of pacts bolstering the strategic partnership and to explore ways to enhance security and counter-terror cooperation. Modi, who became just the fourth Indian prime minister to visit Saudi Arabia after Dr Manmohan Singh in 2010, Indira Gandhi in 1982 and Jawaharlal Nehru in 1956, was conferred the Kingdom's highest civilian honour, the King Abdulaziz Sash " named after Abdulaziz Al Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state.
That visit also resulted in the two countries deciding to further enhance cooperation in counter-terrorism operations, intelligence sharing and law enforcement.
In 2019, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) reciprocated with his visit to India during which he and Modi discussed prospects for bilateral cooperation in all fields, along with other issues of mutual interest. A few interesting and noteworthy developments occurred during the visit:
India was confirmed as a strategic partner country under Vision 2030
A proposal to set up a high-level partnership council Strategic Partnership Council was made
Modi and Salman "condemned in the strongest terms, the recent terrorist attack on Indian security forces on 14 February, 2019, in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir". This was a major development given Riyadh's standing as a firm ally of Islamabad.
In 2019, MBS announced that Saudi Arabia would invest over $100 billion in India in petrochemicals, refining, infrastructure, mining and manufacturing, agriculture and several other sectors.
Our plans to invest in India are on track and we are in discussion to prioritise investment opportunities in several sectors in both countries," Saudi Ambassador Dr Saud bin Mohammed Al Sati further told PTI in an interview.
Stating that Saudi Arabia values India as a strategic partner and a close friend, Al Sati identified ongoing cooperation in areas of training, knowledge sharing and combating terrorism as key elements of the partnership in the defence and security sphere.
Modi, Doval visit Saudi
In October 2019, Modi made his second visit to the Kingdom, this time to participate in the high-profile financial summit Future Investment Initiative dubbed "Davos in the desert" (a pet project of MBS). The prime minister met top ministers of the Gulf and discussed ways to further deepen bilateral ties in areas of energy, labour, agriculture and water technologies and also called on Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
The Strategic Partnership Council, mandated to monitor the progress of strategic relationships in a whole range of key areas, which was proposed during MBS' visit, was also finalised during Modi's visit to Riyadh.
Before his meeting with the Saudi King, top ministers of the Gulf nation called on Prime Minister Modi and discussed ways to further deepen bilateral ties in areas of energy, labour, agriculture and water technologies.
NSA Ajit Doval's visit to Saudi Arabia in October 2019 was also a major development after the Saudi government reportedly stated that Riyadh "expressed understanding of India's approach and actions in Jammu and Kashmir," a comment that referred to the abrogation of Article 370.
Closer defence ties
Even as Modi visited the Kingdom, the General Authority of Military Industries of Saudi Arabia and the Department of Defense Production of India signed an agreement to increase collaboration in military acquisitions, joint research, forming joint ventures, and technology transfers.
In December 2020, Chief of Army Staff General MM Naravane visited Saudi Arabia in the first-ever visit by a head of the 1.3 million-strong Army to the strategically important Gulf nation. General Naravane held extensive talks with senior military officials of that country with an aim to enhance bilateral defence cooperation.
In August 2021, Saudi Arabia and India held their first-ever joint naval exercise " called the Al-Mohed Al-Hindi Exercise " in the Persian Gulf with the Indian Navy deploying INS Talwar and the Saudi Arabian Navy represented by the Royal Saudi Naval Force Ship HMS Khalid.
As N Ram Prasad wrote in Arab News, "Overall, the direction of the India-Saudi bilateral defense relationship remains extremely positive with several initiatives being taken. Both countries are ascending powers and major players in their respective regions and are natural partners in addressing the various security challenges confronting the region."
The way ahead
As mentioned in a previous piece in Firstpost, both sides benefit from the relationship: with India expanding cooperation when it comes to anti-terror activities and looking to protect its interests in Afghanistan while the Kingdom is eyeing rebalancing the geopolitics of the region.
With inputs from agencies