Wooing Gulf investments - End of Indian summer over Arabia?
New Indian Express (Chennai), April 30, 2008.
FOREIGN Minister Pranab Mukherjee was luckier the third time. On two previous occasions his visits to Saudi Arabia were cancelled at the last minute. During his two-day visit he met a host of Saudi officials. He also had an audience with the King Abdullah. Besides the customary remarks about the Middle East peace process, situation in Iraq and regional stability Mukherjee flagged in the , economic agenda. He was enticing Saudi investment in India's massive infrastructure plans which he felt could absorb upto "$ 500-600 billion."
During the last February visit of his Saudi counterpart Prince Saud al-Faisal, both countries agreed to pursue investments in energy, petro-chemical and infrastructure. Mukherjee was also trying to capitalise on the momentum set by the landmark visit of the King as the chief guest at the 2006 Republic Day celebrations.
At the bilateral level, Saudi Arabia has been a major supplier of energy and accounts for about a third of India's total oil imports. With a total trade turnover of just under $ 16 billion, it is India's major trading partner in the Middle East.
Out of an estimated four million Indian workers in the region, at least 1.6 million are gainfully employed in the kingdom. Through their employment and homeward remittances these workers contribute not only to the welfare of their dependent families but also help mitigate India's perennial trade deficit with the region.
However, the manner in which India has approached the political aspects of its relations with Saudi Arabia has been abysmal. The last state visit to Saudi Arabia took place in 1982 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited the kingdom. This was nearly quarter of a century after Jawaharlal Nehru's visit in 1956.
Mukherjee's visit came more than seven years after the visit of Jawant Singh in January 2001. Even the hype over King Abdullah's state visit did not usher in a sense of urgency.
In terms of education cooperation, the New Delhi-based Jamia Millia Islamia has emerged as the principal beneficiary of the Saudi largess. During his visit, King Abdullah was conferred an hon orary doctorate by Jamia for his contribution to peace and promotion of IndoSaudi relations. The Saudi monarch reciprocated this gesture by donating US $ 30 million for the construction of a library and research building.
However, the Indo-Saudi relations cannot be studied only through the energyeconomic prism. The desire of King Abdullah (since his earlier days as Crown Prince before ascending to the thrown in 2005), to reframe the traditional Saudi ties with the US through ‘Look East' policy also has security implications. Saudi Arabia would expect greater Indian transparency in dealing with the Gulf.
For example, did Mukherjee inform the King about the impending visit of Iranian President Ahmadinejad?
Furthermore, both are on a learning curve. The Saudi brand of Wahhabi Islam and Indian secularism are anti-thetical. Yet, geo-strategic compulsions and hardcore realism will force both to reexamine their past perception of one another. The ‘Look East' policy of Saudi Arabia fits well within the Indian desire for greater economic cooperation with the energy giant. While fundamental dif ferences would not be overcome suddenly both countries would have to make se , rious and concerted effort towards mutual understanding.
India has been extremely accommodative of some of Saudi sensitivities. During his State visit King Abdullah skipped the customary visit to the Rajghat. For the Saudi ruler, laying wreath on Mahatma Gandhi's memorial symbolised idol worship, something impermissible under the Wahhabi Islam.
Indeed, the Indian indifference is not particular to Saudi Arabia. Ever since Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister a host of rulers from the region including Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Jordan were in India. The top leadership of the country could not find time or inclination to organise reciprocal visits. Indeed this neglect of the Middle East comes against the backdrop of highsounding rhetoric about energy security .
If once excludes the recent visit of Vice President M H Ansari, even the energy rich Central Asia had not figured in the radar screen of senior Indian leaders.
The lack of sustained follow-up after King Abdullah's visit has to be located in the absence of a foreign minister who can devote his attention and energy exclusively to external affairs. From the days of Nehru, prime ministers often doubled as foreign ministers, thereby imposing organisational limitations on follow-up measures.
Mukherjee, however, faces different problems. Besides his own prime ministerial ambitions, he is the principal firefighter in the government. He heads scores of committees of Group of Ministers and countless number of official panels and party responsibilities. Of late, mediating with the cantankerous Left parties over the nuclear deal has become his principal function.
With a powerful section of the Congress party now rooting for Rahul Gandhi as the next Prime Minister, Mukherjee perhaps will find more time and energy to the external area. Time has come for him to use his rich political acumen to provide a much needed but a long absent leadership to the South Block. Will he now the play the role Manmohan Singh played when heading the North Block in the 1990s?