New Delhi: External affairs minister Salman Khurshid is expected to visit Saudi Arabia this weekend, a person familiar with the matter said Wednesday, for a bilateral visit to a key country that supplies one-fifth of India’s oil requirements and is home to about two million Indian expatriates.
Khurshid’s visit will be the first solo one by an external affairs minister since Jaswant Singh went to Saudi Arabia in 2001. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz was chief guest at India’s Republic Day Parade in 2006 and in 2010 ties were elevated to a strategic partnership when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the kingdom. Defence minister A. K. Antony led a nine-member delegation to Riyadh last year, a rare visit for an Indian defence minister.
Saudi Arabia is also the largest member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) group, a political and economic alliance of six Middle Eastern countries that includes Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. Together they constitute a key source of foreign remittances from the five-six million Indian expatriates based in the region.
Besides talks with the Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, Khurshid is also likely to meet the other members of the Saudi royal family, the person cited above said. In recent years, cooperation in counter-terrorism and intelligence sharing have seen an upswing with the kingdom showing more understanding for India’s concerns, the person cited above said.
Last year, the Saudi government helped India apprehend two key suspects, one of them being Zabiuddin Ansari alias Abu Jundal wanted in the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attack, and the other a suspected founding member of the Indian Mujahideen terrorist group, Fasih Mehmood, for the 2010 bomb blast in Bangalore.
The intensification in intelligence and counter-terrorism cooperation follows a visit to India by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, secretary general of the National Security Council of Saudi Arabia in March 2011, as special envoy of the king.
“The cooperation in terrorism is important in the context of Pakistan,” said Kanwal Sibal, a former foreign secretary, referring to the close ties between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. “On the issue of terrorism, they are sending a signal to Pakistan that they will take action in accordance with their own struggle against terrorism at home.”
“They would also like to demonstrate that contrary to the belief that terrorism is financed by Saudi money, they are willing to be cooperative and helpful to fight this,” he said.
Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia is also making overtures to India in the context of the ideological struggle with Shia-majority Iran, Sibal said, pointing to the former’s offer to make up any lessening of oil supplies from Iran in the wake of crippling sanctions targeting that country’s oil industry.
Khurshid will also aim to seek to drum up investment for India, especially in infrastructure, Sibal said. The security situation in Afghanistan after the pull-out of US-led international troops from there in 2014 is also likely to figure in Khurshid’s talks with his hosts.