The two leaders – Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi and His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman share a unique bonhomie which they have developed over several interactions over the years. Both leaders share a transformational vision for their countries, and this has translated into several opportunities for partnership in new areas. This augurs well for the relationship to reach greater heights over the next few years. Overall, the direction of the India-Saudi bilateral defence 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 ‘World Defence Show’, scheduled in Riyadh in first week of March 2022 is likely to witness attendance of a number of Indian Public and Private Industries, said Dr. Ausaf Sayeed, Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who has been now appointed as the Secretary of Overseas Indian Affairs. In an exclusive interview with Aeromag and Arabian Defence magazines, he talks about the growing bilateral relations between India and Saudi Arabia and the new focus areas.
Your Excellency, on a bilateral front, what are the new milestones in the decades-old relations between India and Saudi Arabia? What are the major sectors of cooperation between the two countries?
As we mark the 75th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, India’s relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has emerged as one of the most important partnerships of India in its extended neighbourhood. The bilateral relationship is on an upward trajectory across all areas of cooperation, and has been elevated to a strategic partnership. Politically, there have been frequent interactions and exchanges both at the leadership and the ministerial level. In September 2021, the Saudi Foreign Minister visited India and called on the Hon’ble Prime Minister and also met the External Affairs Minister. Defence cooperation has further expanded with the mutual visits of the Army chiefs of both countries recently.
On the commercial side, India has emerged as the Kingdom’s second largest trade partner for 2021, and overall trade has surpassed pre-pandemic levels. Cultural relations are also progressing well, and last year Saudi Arabia and India entered into a historic MOU on Yoga Cooperation.
How did Prime Minister Narendra’ Modi’s visits to Saudi Arabia help to cement the bilateral relations further?
The Hon’ble Prime Minister has visited Saudi Arabia twice – in April 2016 and October 2019. The first visit was a landmark visit which set the tone for the intensification of cooperation, especially in the areas of security and defence. In the second visit of the Hon’ble Prime Minister, besides the signing of MoUs in various areas, the growing ties were formalized in the form of a strategic partnership which began a new era of bilateral cooperation.
The formation of the Strategic Partnership Council, which is headed by the Prime Minister and the Crown Prince at the leadership level, serves as the institutional framework for cooperation going forward across all fields. This Council is supported by two verticals – the Economic and Investment vertical headed by the Commerce and Industries Minister and the Saudi Energy Minister; and the Political, Security, Social and Culture vertical headed by the External Affairs Minister and the Saudi Foreign Minister.
While the opportunity for face-to-face interactions since the beginning of the pandemic has been limited, several rounds of official-level meetings through Joint Working Groups have already been held through the virtual format, and the ministerial meetings are scheduled to be held soon.
While energy security continues to dominate the agenda, security and Defence cooperation are becoming more important in the India-Saudi relationship. What are the activities regarding Defence deals, JVs, interaction between Armed Forces etc.?
The signing of the landmark Riyadh Declaration in 2010 was perhaps the starting point in structured bilateral defence cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia. Bilateral defence ties gained further momentum in 2012, when the two sides decided to establish a Joint Committee on Defence Cooperation (JCDC), which would identify areas for cooperation in the field of defence. The JCDC has held four meetings – in 2012, 2016, 2017 and 2019 — during which fruitful discussions were held on training and capacity building, intelligence exchange, maritime security and the promotion of defence industries. Defence cooperation between the two countries got a major boost with the visit of then Crown Prince Salman (the present king) to New Delhi in 2014, when a MoU on defence cooperation was formally signed.
During the official visit of Hon’ble Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Riyadh in October 2019, the General Authority of Military Industries (GAMI) of Saudi Arabia and the Department of Defence Production of India signed a MoU covering collaboration in military acquisitions, joint research, forming joint ventures and technology transfers.
2021 witnessed enhanced bilateral engagements between the Royal Saudi Navy and Indian Navy aimed towards securing the region’s overall maritime security. Goodwill visits by Indian Ships have been a major component of defence cooperation with 16 Indian Navy and Coast Guard vessels entering Saudi ports since 2015. In 2021, we had three Indian Ship visits and the first bilateral Naval exercise “Al Mohed-Al Hindi” with the Kingdom conducted in August 2021 on the Eastern Coast at Jubail. In September 2021, Indian Naval Chief had an interaction with the Commander of Royal Saudi Naval Forces on the sidelines of 24th International Seapower Symposium held in Naval War College, USA.
Building forward on the relations post the historic visit of General Manoj Mukund Naravane, Chief of Indian Army in December 2020, and both the Land Forces Chiefs had telephonic conversations in February and December 2021 and recently on 09 February 2022 to monitor the progress of bilateral relations. Also in a historic first, Commander of Royal Saudi Land Forces visited India from 14 to 16 February 2022 with a high-level delegation to discuss bilateral defence cooperation issues.
Despite COVID induced travel restrictions, officers from both Royal Saudi Armed Forces and Indian Armed Forces are undergoing training in the various military institutes. In 2022, we expect more exchanges and training activities to be conducted between the two friendly countries. New areas of cooperation are being mutually identified to include Intelligence Sharing, Counter Terrorism, Artificial Intelligence and Cyber Security.
The ‘World Defence Show’, scheduled in Riyadh in first week of March 2022 is likely to witness attendance of a number of Indian Public and Private industries. A senior delegation is also expected to represent Indian Armed forces during the premier event. Also, the ‘Defence Expo 2022’ is scheduled in India from 10 to 13 March 2022 wherein various military and business delegations from Saudi side are expected to attend.
Overall, the direction of the India-Saudi bilateral defence 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.
How do the countries associate with each other on counter terrorism and anti-extremism activities?
Terrorism in all its manifestations is unacceptable and can never be justified. Today all nation states in every region are vulnerable to terrorism and this menace has become a global concern. India since its Independence has been facing the problem of terrorism in different parts of the country and has close cooperation with various friendly countries to tackle this global threat. Both India and Saudi Arabia are committed partners to reduce the menace of extremism and cooperate in fighting terrorism. Towards the same, we have regular information and intelligence exchanges at the highest levels and share a working relationship to combat the same. In the last couple of years, both countries have signed several agreements in the field of security, including an extradition treaty. We are aware of the numerous initiatives being taken by Saudi side to combat terrorism in their volatile neighbourhood – they are part of the global coalition to counter ISIS, the effective working of IMCTC are steps taken by them in this regard. India is willing to cooperate in any manner to tackle this global menace which affects us all.
Finally, on a personal note Your Excellency, how would you describe the evolution of Indo-Saudi Arabia partnership as you have witnessed it up close, and the personal rapport that has grown steadily between the two leaders – Prime Minister Modi and Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman?
As I complete my three-year tenure in the Kingdom as Ambassador, I look back on the various milestones and evolution of the bilateral relationship with tremendous satisfaction. I have spent nearly a decade of my diplomatic career in the Kingdom at various points of time, and can say that along with the developments and achievements of both countries in various fields, the relationship has also evolved and has become more multi-faceted. The two leaders – Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi and His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman share a unique bonhomie which they have developed over several interactions over the years. Both leaders share a transformational vision for their countries, and this has translated into several opportunities for partnership in new areas. This augurs well for the relationship to reach greater heights over the next few years.