The Times of India
PM's Saudi visit attempt to make up for lost time
Diwakar, TNN, Feb 28, 2010, 02.46am IST
NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh left for Saudi Arabia on Saturday morning on a visit tailored to close a gap in India's efforts to promote its economic and strategic interests through a string of international partnerships.
Singh's is the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Saudi Arabia since 1982 when Indira Gandhi travelled to the desert kingdom, which accounts for 20% of country's energy imports and, by virtue of its King being the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, holds a pivotal position in the Islamic world.
It is recognized here that the country should have followed up on Indira Gandhi's visit, but the failure to do so is blamed on India's preoccupation with developments in the neighbourhood and the toil to come to grips with the post-Cold War world. Saudis had their own concerns and imperatives -- a volatile Middle East and churn in the Islamic world which threatened to challenge the hold of the House of Sauds.
But the two countries have decided to make up for the lost time and deepen the engagement. The visit of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in January 2006 when he was also the Chief Guest for the Republic Day celebrations, was the turning point.
The one-day visit of Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud Al Faisal in December 2008 to convey Saudi Arabia's condemnation of the terror attack on Mumbai was gesture of solidarity that went down well here. In a way, the Prime Minister's visit, as petroleum minister Murli Deora puts it, is a thanksgiving gesture to a country which stood by India during the energy crisis. But while crude imports remain the most crucial component of the ties, India is now looking at a partnership which is diverse. An extradition treaty is on the table. More important, the government is keen on gauging the Saudi response to Pakistan's moves to take advantage of the growing American weariness of its war efforts in Afghanistan to install a puppet regime in pursuance of its quest for strategic depth.
Being the only country which, apart from Pakistan and UAE, recognized the Mullah Omar-led Taliban regime as the legitimate ruler of Afghanistan, Saudis seem to subscribe to the good Taliban/bad Taliban formulation peddled by Pakistan to secure the return of its favourite jehadi groups to power in Kabul.
India, however, is laying store by the developments that have exposed the growing collaboration between Taliban and al-Qaida -- a group that the ruling Saudi dynasty sees as posing a threat to their rule.
Saddled with the perception that their country -- base of the radical Wahabi Islam -- from where Osama bin Laden and the overwhelming majority of 9/11 attackers came, Saudi authorities are having to battle al-Qaida both within and outside as in neighbouring Yemen.
At a time when countries like China and Iran have rejected the good Taliban/ bad Taliban distinction as spurious, and when the Western forces have launched a huge offensive in Afghanistan, the Prime Minister may like to apprise his hosts of India's take on the issue. In a statement released before he took off for Riyadh, Singh stressed: "I believe India and Saudi Arabia have much to gain by cooperating with each other in combating extremism and terrorism. I expect to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and other regional issues of mutual interest."
In an interview to Saudi journalists, the PM underlined that extremism and terrorism represent a major threat not just to India, but also Pakistan and the entire neighbourhood. "As a neighbour, we cannot remain immune to the rise of extremism and terrorism in Pakistan, or on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Extremism and terrorism are major threats not only to India, but also to Pakistan, and all its neighbours," he said.
Though there are, as the failure of their efforts for unity between rival Palestinian groups show, limits to the Saudi leverage with Sunni groups, they remain a factor.
Government is also seeking to use PM's visit to make a pitch for investments from Saudi Arabia. Saudis have so far preferred the US and West in investing the gigantic pile of petro dollars they are sitting on. Government is keen to get a piece of the cake by projecting India as the new hot destination.