Dr Saud Al Sati has been the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to India for nearly seven years and powered the remarkable growth of bilateral ties. In an exclusive and wide-ranging interview with the policy journal INDIA REVIEW & ANALYSIS on the occasion of his country's National Day on September 23, the Ambassador talks about the rapid growth in bilateral ties, across an array of sectors, the strategic investment of USD 44 bn in a mega refinery in Maharashtra and the growing counter-terrorism and security cooperation.
In fact, says the Ambassador, “our age-old ties of friendship are deepening with each passing day” as the Kingdom seeks to enhance its diplomatic presence in India with a brand-new embassy building.
Q: Relations between India and Saudi Arabia have been elevated into a multi-dimensional engagement. How do you see the evolution of this strategic partnership to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing geostrategic environment?
A: The friendship between Saudi Arabia and India is deep and multifarious. The exchanges, over several centuries, have left an indelible mark upon both cultures and civilizations. Currently, there are more than three million Indians living and working in Saudi Arabia, forming the largest expatriate community in the Kingdom. Today, the two countries lead the future of Middle East and South Asian development across an array of technological, infrastructural and bio-sciences sectors.
The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have met thrice in the last four years, leading to the strengthening of co-operation in political, economic, security and defence realms between the two nations. Similarly, in the past, during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tenure, King Abdullah’s historic visit to India led to the signing of Delhi Declaration in 2006 and the Riyadh Declaration in 2010 which raised the profile of our ties to a strategic partnership.
While India is likely to overtake Japan and Germany to become the third largest economy in the next 10 years, Saudi Arabia is already among the 20 largest economies in the world. There is also a shared interest in keeping the peace and stability of the region. While Saudi Arabia is diversifying its economy beyond oil and increasing the contribution of the private sector as the main driver of economic growth, India has ushered in a new era of development and economic reforms that will make it even more attractive for foreign investment.
Q: Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was in Riyadh in February where India was accorded the “guest of honour” status at the Janadriyah Festival. What was the significance of this visit and what are its follow-ups?
A: The Al-Janadriyah Festival is the prestigious annual National Heritage and Cultural Festival of Saudi Arabia. The festival draws millions of visitors. The Kingdom’s gesture of honoring India is symbolic of its investment in this friendship and celebrates the strength of our relationship and the crucial ties we share and cherish. The festival was inaugurated by The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud in the presence of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in Riyadh. Her discussions with Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir and others centred on ways to further strengthen our growing ties and cooperation. More high-level visits are expected in the remaining months of this year. Various programs accompanying the festival were held to celebrate the relationship which rests on centuries of economic and socio-cultural ties dating back to the ancient era when trade between the two comprised largely of spices, aromatics, almonds and dates. The civilizational ties between the two countries have been enriched by the movement of not only goods but people and ideas as well. Both nations share a rich history of literature. Also, scholars from India came to our region to learn Arabic language and Islamic jurisprudence and the Arabs came to India to learn mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. This Festival provided an opportunity to showcase and build upon these ties.
Q: 2018 could well go down as Year of India-Saudi Arabia partnership as the two countries celebrate 70 years of ties. What have been the highlights of the year?
A: The year 2018 marking 70 years of our bilateral friendship has indeed been a momentous one dotted with historic milestones. The mutual respect and trust Saudi Arabia and India share has deepened with time and reflects in the developments that have taken place this year. The Al-Janadriyah festival has been an integral part of Saudi Arabia’s cultural landscape since 1985 and the Kingdom’s gesture of honouring India is deeply symbolic of the growing importance of the friendship. Haj pilgrimage is one of the strongest cultural pillars of our ties. In 2018, Saudi Arabia increased India’s Haj quota by 5,000, the second hike in two years, taking the number of pilgrims who can perform Haj from the country to 175,025. During the signing of bilateral annual Haj 2018 agreement, positive discussions were also held on reviving the option of sending Haj pilgrims through sea route over the next few years.
Saudi Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources Khalid Bin Abdulaziz Al-Falih met Prime Minister Modi during his visit to India in February 2018. Their talks focused on the synergy between the objectives of Saudi Vision 2030 and India’s economic initiatives. Following the visit, Saudi Aramco signed a MoU with a a consortium of three Indian oil companies to jointly build a mega refinery in Ratnagiri, on the west coast of India. The project is estimated to cost around USD 44 billion, and the refinery will be able to process 1.2 million barrel per day. This strategic investment represents a milestone.
Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley also visited Saudi Arabia in February 2018 to co-chair the 12th India-Saudi Arabia Joint Commission meeting. He met with The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and discussed with Saudi officials ways to boost bilateral economic and trade cooperation. The frequency of high-profile bilateral exchanges demonstrate that the two nations are natural partners with common interests as both are working towards the greater development of the region through strategic partnerships. Our age-old ties of friendship are deepening with each passing day.
Q: One of the relationship’s significant facets has been the quiet but growing security and intelligence exchanges. How do you see the future of this important cooperation?
A: Saudi Arabia is actually leading the global campaign against terrorism, terror financing and extremism. Terrorism is a common concern for both Saudi Arabia and India and the two countries have been closely cooperating in fighting it, including through exchange of information and intelligence. Both countries have signed several agreements in the field of security, including an extradition treaty. During the April 2016 visit of Prime Minister Modi to the Kingdom, the two sides decided to further enhance cooperation in counter-terrorism operations, intelligence sharing and law enforcement. In fact, during the visit, the two sides also agreed upon the need to intensify bilateral defence cooperation through exchange of visits by military personnel and experts and exchange of visits of ships and aircrafts. This year Saudi cadets travelled to India for training at the National Defence Academy (NDA). This is the second group of Saudi military cadets to come to India.
Q: Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030, hinging on mega projects such as NEOM economic zone and Qiddiya entertainment city, has been opening up to foreign firms. How do you see the evolving opportunities for Indian businessmen, entrepreneurs and professionals?
A: Vision 2030 aims to transform the entire foundation of our Kingdom’s economy. We are now looking to a post-oil age that will usher in an era of world-class technological research, start-up development, entrepreneurial vigour and vast investment opportunities. Our aim is to free the Kingdom’s economy from oil dependency by diversifying revenue streams, attracting foreign investment and establishing Saudi Arabia as a global hub. We view India as a partner in this exciting new phase of our country’s profound growth. There are more opportunities today to tap into than ever before. A USD100 billion planned investment in transport projects will occur over the next decade. The construction market is also expected to reach a record high of USD96.52 billion in 2025, up from about USD45.33 billion currently. Another important development has been the signing of MoU between Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (PIF) and Softbank to build the world’s biggest solar energy project with investment of USD 200 billion and capacity of 200 gigawatts by 2030. These projects will help create up to 100,000 direct and indirect jobs in the Kingdom. These are also good economic times for India. Your economy is projected to rise sharply over the next couple of decades and to become the second largest in Asia by 2040. As such, India is a primary focus of the Kingdom’s campaign to court foreign investors. So the wide-ranging reforms taking place in Saudi Arabia coupled with initiatives taken by India to improve the ease of doing business and relax foreign investment norms such as “Make in India”, “Digital India” and “Smart Cities” have opened up vast opportunities for strengthening our future economic cooperation and bilateral investments at a much more rapid pace.
Q: Saudi Arabia has mega investment plans in India, including in a petrochemical complex in Maharashtra, and in southern India. Can you outline some of the bigger plans?
A: Saudi Aramco inaugurated an Aramco Asia India office in October last year. More recently, it signed a MoU with a consortium of three Indian oil companies to jointly build a mega refinery in Ratnagiri on the west coast. The project is estimated to cost around USD44 billion and the refinery will be able to process 1.2 million barrel per day. This strategic investment represents a milestone. In fact, in the last six years, Saudi Aramco’s spending on material services sourced from Indian suppliers has reached almost USD 2 billion, with USD 1.3 billion of that number in the last three years alone. During his February 2018 visit to India, Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih emphasized that Aramco is also looking at other opportunities to buy into existing refineries in India and upgrades of existing refineries. It is important to note that we aren’t only looking for oil and energy partnerships, but also petrochemicals, fertilizers, power projects in India that are of attraction to the champions of those fields in Saudi Arabia.
India is growing at the fastest rate among G-20 nations and it is one of the top eight economies today. So we want to cement the ties and capture those emerging opportunities, including India becoming a big investor in Saudi Arabia, as well as promoting trade between Indian and the Middle East’s largest economy and the region's anchor, Saudi Arabia.
Q: Your brand new embassy is slated for opening in a few weeks. It is said to be one of the largest foreign embassy complexes in India. Can you say something about it?
A: The new Embassy building will be inaugurated this year. It goes in line with the growth of our excellent relations. It will upgrade our diplomatic presence and enhance the services the Embassy provides to our nationals and our Indian friends.