Foreign Policy Watch: India-Middle East

[oped of the day] Raja Mandala: Prince and the PM


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing much

Mains level : India - Saudi Arabia relations


Prime Minister is in Saudi Arabia for business. But he should also be interested in the wide-ranging social and religious reform initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the last few years. 

Davos in the Desert

    • PM is attending the annual international forum popularly known as “Davos in the Desert”.
    • The forum is formally called the Future Investment Initiative and seeks to elevate Saudi Arabia’s international economic engagement. 
    • It is part of Prince Mohammed’s efforts to rapidly transform Saudi economy under the “Vision 2030” that he unveiled in 2016.

Saudi – MBS

    • Economic reforms – Saudi Arabia’s economic transformation envisaged by MbS opens up huge new opportunities for India’s economic cooperation with the kingdom.
    • Beyond oil – Saudi has been limited for far too long to the import of oil and export of manpower.
    • Modernising society – Prince Mohammed has set an ambitious agenda to modernise the Saudi society that has come under the domination of religious conservatism since 1979, when Islamic radicals came close to destabilising the kingdom.
    • The drift towards conservatism in the Arabian peninsula had multiple negative effects on India and its neighbors. The reform of Saudi society will hopefully help to reverse some of these negative effects.
    • Reaction to reforms – Western liberals are dismissing the MbS agenda as cosmetic. Some religious conservatives in the Middle East are denouncing it as radical. Regional rivals of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran, are mounting relentless pressures against MbS.

Economic reforms

    • Moving away from oil – The aim is to diversify the Saudi economy from its historical reliance on the oil business and develop manufacturing and service sectors through liberalisation and integration with the world. 
    • 3 basic foundations – It is founded on a tripod — the kingdom’s special status in the Arab and Islamic worlds, its strategic location at the trijunction of Africa, Europe, and Asia, and its expansive investment capability.
    • Initiatives made 
      • attempt to turn Saudi Aramco, the national oil producing company, into a global conglomerate
      • easing the restrictions on foreign direct investment
      • promoting tourism and the entertainment industry
      • development of the debt market
      • a bankruptcy law
      • introduction of VAT to enhance non-oil revenue generation
      • cuts in water and power subsidies
      • cash handouts to the needy
      • massive anti-corruption campaign
    • The result – The World Bank’s ease of doing business named the kingdom one of the top ten “global business climate improvers” in 2019.

India – Saudi

    • India has a huge stake in the successful economic and social modernisation of Saudi Arabia. 
    • Reinforce change – A modern and moderate Arabia will reinforce similar trends in the Subcontinent. 
    • Partnerships – An important element of Vision 2030 is the idea of strategic partnerships with select countries like the US, China, Japan, India, South Korea, Germany, France and the UK.
    • Investing capital – growing Saudi interest to deploy massive capital into India. Aramco’s decision to take a large stake in the oil business of Reliance could be the beginning of a new economic era in bilateral relations.
    • Moderate Islam – MbS’s commitment to strengthen the moderate trends in Islam is positive news for the subcontinent. Some of the social reforms of the last three years include limiting the power of the religious police in public places, granting more rights to women, lifting the 35-year-old ban on cinema halls, letting restaurants play music and permitting large music concerts. Yoga schools are now flourishing in Saudi cities. 
    • Strengthening nationalism – the “nationalist” themes of the kingdom’s narrative about itself are given strength. Nationalism is not seen as a counter to the deep religiosity of the people, but is seen as important to bring a much-needed balance into the Saudi worldview.


Developing stronger ties with Saudi Arabia has been an important diplomatic achievement in Modi’s first term. The reform agenda of Prince offers an opportunity for the PM to lend the relationship a durable strategic dimension.

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