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India and Saudi Arabia think big on people-to-people ties amid surge in weekly flights

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh in this October 2019 photo (All images courtesy: PIB)

India and Saudi Arabia are quietly but steadily resetting their ties driven by greater economic integration with a renewed thrust on connectivity and people to people contact. Amid ongoing talks on a rupee riyal trade, soon, India and Saudi Arabia will have 290 weekly flights directly connecting the two states. At present, the number of flights is 243. Depending on the traffic, the number could increase further. Later this year, the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) is slated to start a liner service from Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Islamic Port which will connect Mundra and Nhava Sheva in India.

While Saudi Arabia is critical for India’s energy requirements, food security is Riyadh’s thrust.

Importantly, the growing ties between the two are now extending beyond economic parameters. Next week, Secretary General of the Muslim World League Mohammad Bin Abdulkarim Al Issa is set to visit New Delhi. Among Al Issa’s several meetings, he is expected to meet External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, according to news agency ANI.

The visit is crucial as India, with the world’s second largest Muslim population, will look for greater cooperation from the Gulf nations.

In April, Saudi Arabia helped in evacuating more than 66 people from “brotherly and friendly countries” which included India. Saudi Arabia is not only a key member of the Gulf Cooperation Council but also part of the G20, which India is chairing this year.

By 2030, the Kingdom, home to 2.8 million Indians, is hoping to have 12 million visitors from India as it focuses on tourism to boost its economy. Saudi Arabia, under the Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has introduced the ‘Vision 2030’ project, under which the Gulf kingdom has already set foot towards transition from being a conservative Muslim state to an uber modern society. Incidentally Saudi Arabia’s relations with the cash starved Pakistan have also nosedived in the last few years.

Not just Saudi Arabia, India has rescripted its foreign policy script with the Gulf region as a whole.

When it comes to the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are aggressively seeking ways to expand relations with India. It is a significant shift because both countries, but particularly the latter, have long aligned with Pakistan, Foreign Policy magazine noted.

“The pivot to India stems in part from a common interest in containing Islamist extremism, but much of the pull is economic. The Emiratis and Saudis see opportunities in a country of 1.4 billion people that is less than a four-hour flight away,” it said.

Also read: Saudi’s reluctance to offer help to Pakistan, a wake up call, signals new geopolitical contours