One of the leading Indian authorities on Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, Talmiz Ahmad, who served as Indian ambassador to Riyadh twice (2000-03 and 2010-11), says Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia is the perfect opportunity for India to play a role in encouraging dialogue among countries in the region. It was during his second posting in Saudi Arabia in 2010 that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Riyadh. He is the only Indian diplomat to have been awarded the King Abdul Aziz Medal First Class for his outstanding contribution to Saudi-Indian relations. He is now an independent consultant based in Dubai. Following are excerpts from the interview:
Q: What are your thoughts regarding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia?
A: I welcome the visit of the Indian Prime Minister. It is taking place just six years after the visit of Dr. Manmohan Singh. I am confident that this visit will carry forward the initiatives that had been finalized during the last prime ministerial interaction with the Saudi leadership and will take into account the interests of both countries in promoting peace and security in the region.
Q: You know the Saudis very well, having been the ambassador in Riyadh twice. What do you think the Saudis expect from this visit?
A: Both India and Saudi Arabia attach the highest importance to the bilateral relationship that has been shaped over the last 15 years. The relationship has a very substantial political and economic content. I believe that the Kingdom will be interested in strengthening these ties, particularly in regard to the area of security cooperation as both countries are concerned about the proliferation of extremism and violence in our region and agree on the need to pool our resources to combat the scourge that has affected the entire region.
Q: In 2010, when Dr Singh visited Riyadh, the region was not in such flux. There was no Daesh then. What impact, if any, do you foresee on the relationship?
A: We have been concerned about extremism and violence for several years. Al-Qaeda emerged as a scourge in our region in the 1990s. India has been under attack by extremists in our neighborhood from 1989, when numerous organizations in Pakistan were mobilized by state and non-state elements to assault India. Daesh is the third generation of terrorists. The first generation of terrorists was from 1980 to Sept. 11, 2001. The second generation of terrorists was from Sept. 11, 2001 up to 2010. Daesh represents the third stage from 2011 onward. It has younger leaders as well as followers. It makes robust use of modern technology. It has now established a proto-state across parts of Iraq and Syria and also stretched its tentacles to targets in the West. These developments obviously pose very important challenges to the security of the region all the way from Pakistan to the Mediterranean in addition to Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa. To complicate the picture we cannot rule out the possibility of terrorists in Pakistan and in other parts of the region coming together and operating under a broad leadership. I think that would constitute a very serious threat to the security of the entire region.
Q: When the late King Abdullah visited India in January 2006, that visit came after a long, long hiatus, spanning decades.
A: Yes, our political relationship is a complex narrative. In the 1940s, 1950s and, even in the 1960s, India and Saudi Arabia had a very strong political relationship. After that, we became divided primarily due to the different options we adopted with regard to our affiliation during the Cold War — while Saudi Arabia was linked to the US-led camp, many observers felt that India was more inclined toward the Soviet one; we obviously saw ourselves as a non-aligned grouping. In any case, the political relationship deteriorated. At the same time, Saudi Arabia built, on the basis of its Cold War alliance, a very strong relationship with Pakistan. After the end of the Cold War, many countries in the region began to take a fresh look at the foreign policy options available to them in the face of new scenarios and new challenges.
‘India and Saudi Arabia attach the highest importance to the bilateral relationship that has been shaped over the past 15 years’
Q: What really broke the ice?
A: Saudi Arabia and India reached out to each other to prepare the ground for a good political relationship with the visit of our External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh to Saudi Arabia in 2001. With this visit, many of the old cobwebs and misunderstandings were swept away. The two countries agreed that their relations would be pursued on the basis of the importance each country directly attached to the other. This understanding enabled us to move forward. This is why, within a few years of this opening, King Abdullah came to India in 2006. Since then, the political content in the relationship has continued to strengthen.
Q: The Riyadh Declaration was signed in 2010. How do you see the progress on agreements that were signed during that very important visit?
A: I think the promises of the Riyadh Declaration have been achieved to a considerable extent. Firstly, there is very strong security cooperation between our two countries which has benefitted both of us. Saudi Arabia has recognized the danger that the region faces from extremist elements in Pakistan which have been a source of threats to most of the Middle East. Those elements are the ones who launched the Mumbai attacks in 2008. Those attacks fundamentally transformed the understanding of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states with regard to the threat of terrorism emanating from Pakistan. On this basis, we were able to build a strong security relationship with each other. The second aspect is that both our countries attach great significance to our economic ties. A large number of business delegations have been exchanged and the Kingdom’s businessmen and women have also announced that they are looking at investment opportunities in India. That too, I think, is a significant change. Obviously, the energy-based relationship continues to be the most important aspect of our ties. Saudi Arabia is the No. 1 supplier of petroleum and petroleum products to India. The Kingdom supplies 18% of our petroleum requirements. The size of the Indian community in Saudi Arabia continues to expand — we are a little under 3 million and are the largest expatriate community in the Kingdom. The traditional sources of connectivity remain and I think the new areas that are being more vigorously pursued are in regard to the political and security partnership.
Q: Final comments?
A: The Modi government has recognized the importance of the relationship with the GCC countries. It has already established a very solid partnership with the UAE and it has now reached out to Saudi Arabia. This visit is based on the concerns that we have with regard to security. Security is the most important factor because without security, there can be no development, no prosperity. Now we face two serious areas of concern which are terrorism and sectarianism. There is now a deep divide between certain major countries of this region and this is a matter of concern for India and for many other Asian countries. I think that, given the importance of regional stability for our long-term interests, India should play a lead role in encouraging dialogue among the various countries of the region so that ultimately we can achieve the mutual confidence required for a cooperative security arrangement to be put in place. This would be a diplomatic initiative. It would bring together all the powers, regional and extra-regional, that have a stake in regional security. The vision that I have for the prime minister’s visit is the promotion of dialogue and a cooperative security framework which will embrace the region and put an end to the serious threat of confrontation and violence that South Asia and the Middle East face today.