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    South Asia
     Jan 28, 2006
India and Saudi Arabia move beyond oil
By Siddharth Srivastava

NEW DELHI - Oil was expected to feature prominently in this week's visit of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia to India. But terror and geostrategy figured as much, signifying that Riyadh and New Delhi have worked out common grounds that have taken more than a decade to iron out.

The importance that India attached to the visit - the first by a Saudi king since 1955 - was reflected by Prime Minister

Manmohan Singh, who broke protocol to receive the monarch at the airport when he arrived late in the evening. King Abdullah, who headed a 250-member delegation, was also the chief guest at the Republic Day parade in New Delhi on Thursday, an occasion when India's military might is on display, as much as its cultural, social and economic diversity.

Apart from looking at India and China (prior to his India sojourn the king visited Beijing) as a rich market to sell its oil, and thus reduce its dependence on the United States, Riyadh has been trying to engage New Delhi in other spheres. One reflection is that it has moved beyond the traditional definition of looking at India through the Pakistan prism. There have been efforts to dehyphenate the Islamabad-New Delhi link, with Saudi Arabia expressing support to Indian efforts in Kashmir, including the institution of a permanent border along the Line of Control (that separates Indian and Pakistan Kashmir), which is opposed by Islamabad.

Islamabad was further rattled when prior to his New Delhi visit, the king agreed to support India's claim for observer status at the Organization of Islamic Conferences. As per OIC rules, no country that has an ongoing dispute with a member nation (Kashmir in the case of India and Pakistan) can be given observer status.

Analysts say that such moves by Saudi Arabia are also calculated to prompt a decisive tilt by New Delhi away from Iran, which is a big competitor in the energy market. Officials accompanying King Abdullah said that Riyadh was uncomfortable with Tehran's nuclear-development program, a stand that goes down well with New Delhi, which has been facing domestic political pressure because of its siding with Western powers on the issue.

Observers also say that New Delhi pushing ties with Riyadh is a result of a well thought out process at a time when New Delhi's relations with Iran are pegged to the way Washington perceives Tehran. India has enjoyed traditional ties with Iran and Iraq for a long time to meet its energy requirements. However, in the context of Tehran's aggressive anti-Western tirades and independent nuclear program, and the problems in Iraq, India has been looking to extend its influence beyond the Persian Gulf to the Saudi peninsula.

Riyadh is also uncomfortable with India's growing relationship with Israel that has extended beyond defense ties. As part of the engagement between New Delhi and Jerusalem, Israel's national security adviser is scheduled to arrive in New Delhi next month. The visit has been delayed by the ill health of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

In this context, one more highlight of the visit of King Abdullah was the subject of terror, which is of serious concern to both countries. A memorandum of understanding on combating crime was signed between the two countries during the visit. The agreement broadly covers terrorism, transnational crime and subversive underworld operations and deals with methods of combating the menace.

"We have declared a war against terror and we will continue our struggle against terrorism until it gets over," a spokesperson quoted King Abdullah as saying. "It might be a long-term struggle, but the battle will continue unless this scourge is eliminated," the Saudi monarch told Singh.

A meeting with Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee also provided perhaps the first opportunity for the heads of Indian intelligence agencies to interact with their Saudi counterparts.

In the past, Indian security agencies have detailed several instances of arrested terrorists having visited Saudi Arabia, including some of the masterminds behind the recent attacks in New Delhi and Bangalore, who have been arrested. Officials in New Delhi believe Saudi Arabia is the meeting point of Indian and Pakistani-backed terrorists who plot their strikes in Indian Kashmir and elsewhere.

Security officials believe the militants visit Saudi Arabia under the pretext of the hajj as the country is home to Mecca and Medina, the holiest shrines of the 150 million Indian Muslims. New Delhi also wants Riyadh to keep an eye on the sizable funds that are transferred to India, a big portion of which is suspected to be routed to fundamentalist institutions.

Of equal importance to India is the Saudi shift from promoting radical and jihadi Islamists that saw the birth of the likes of Osama bin Laden and culminated in the September 11, 2001, attacks being perpetrated by Saudi fundamentalists. The intricate web developed by Saudi intelligence to wage jihad against the erstwhile Soviet Union in the early 1980s and Afghanistan has been well documented.

However, there is a realization that such efforts have eaten away the innards of Saudi society. Terrorism has since turned on Riyadh with the country as much a victim of the monster it helped create. The Saudi decision to take on Islamic radicals and support the US against those who promote terror is critical for India. The agreement on terror, however, stopped short of a legal understanding that is considered to be a precursor to signing an extradition treaty.

New Delhi has been pushing for a comprehensive agreement with Riyadh as it is because of such an arrangement with the United Arab Emirates that India has managed to plug holes in the underworld dragnet that perpetrates crimes in the country, including terror attacks. The perception of India as a "responsible" nation in Europe has also led to the extradition of dreaded gangster Abu Salem from Portugal. This has opened several leads to the operations of mobsters and terror attacks in the past.

There is no doubt, though, that the bedrock of India and Saudi relations is business. Agreements were signed during the visit to strengthen the institutional and legal framework of doing business, with bilateral trade expected to cross US$7 billion by 2010. Public and private companies signed six pacts for cooperation in energy, financial services and the health-care sector.

According to reports, Oil and Natural Gas Corp, India's state-owned energy giant, is planning to rope in Saudi Aramco, the world's largest oil producer, as its equity partner for the 7.5-million-tonne-per-annum Kakinada refinery project in Andhra Pradesh. Reliance, a private energy firm, is reported to have decided to invest in an $8 billion refinery and petrochemicals project in Saudi Arabia. India is Saudi Arabia's fourth-largest oil export destination.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.

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