By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS
NEW DELHI – Taking Saudi-India relations to new heights, during his tenure here as Saudi Arabia’s envoy, Saleh Mohammad Al-Ghamdi expressed satisfaction on his leaving the country with many achievements to his credit. It was the last day of his office here (June 6), when he shared his impressions with this correspondent on having succeeded in giving the much-needed boost to Saudi-India bilateral ties. His stay here as the envoy for five years and three months, in contrast to a diplomat’s term usually being of three to four years, by itself is an indicator of his having succeeded here. “When I first arrived (April 16, 2003), I was met with many frustrations and problems. It took me sometime to get adjusted,” he said.
Taking all this in his stride as “natural problems” for any diplomat in another country, Al-Ghamdi moved on, making the best possible efforts to strengthen Saudi-Indian ties. Opening a new chapter in the two countries’ bilateral ties, during Al-Ghamdi’s term, was the historic and landmark visit of Saudi King Abdullah as the chief guest on India’s Republic Day in January 2006. The visit was the “turning point,” giving a new momentum to Saudi-Indian relations, Al-Ghamdi asserted.
In addition to expanding bilateral ties beyond the oil trade into other sectors, including education, cultural and others, Al-Ghamdi’s purpose was to clear “misperceptions” held about Saudi Arabia. On being asked about “misperceptions,” he replied: “These are about Saudi Arabia being viewed as a rich, radical country and a breeding ground for terrorism.” Clarifying his stand on this, he said: “I have tried my best to introduce Saudi Arabia to our Indian brothers and sisters, to make them understand that it is like any other country.” “We (Saudi Arabia and India) have a lot in common, culturally as well as third world nations.
Our country has suffered the menace caused by terrorism. We are a peaceful nation. We mean no harm to anyone,” he said. Besides, he emphasized: “We cannot divide the world along ideological or religious lines. The consequences of such a division are very dangerous. Terrorism cannot and must not be linked to any particular religion or community.”
Al-Ghamdi’s success in enhancing economic ties is marked by substantial increase in investment on both sides. The bilateral trade in 2006-07 stood at US$ 16 billion (US $ 3 billion excluding oil) and is expected to double by 2010. “We need India as much as India needs us,” has been his message, which he is confident would be carried forward in the coming years strengthening their ties further. On oil trade, he said: “We have expressed our commitment on uninterrupted supply of oil to India as much as it needs.”
Saudi-Indian ties are no longer confined to just oil trade. With “all hurdles removed,” the future is bright for expansion in other areas, Al-Ghamdi asserted. Saudi Arabia and India are working towards establishing a strategic partnership. The joint chief of Saudi Armed Forces is expected to visit India in October, Al-Ghamdi said. In addition, Saudi officials have been here to attend its military institutions.
Besides, drawing attention to the new importance gained by India in the educational field, Al-Ghamdi said: “There are around 250 Saudi students here studying medicine, engineering, information technology and other subjects. The same number is expected in the coming year.”
Of late, in addition to government level visits, the two countries have accorded importance to increasing “people-to-people” contacts, including visits by youth delegations, Al-Ghamdi said. Expressing appreciation for cooperation extended to him by all ministries of the Indian government, he pointed out: “Efforts made by two governments are great. When there is stronger cooperation, deeper understanding of each other by more people to people contact, greater changes will follow.”
Crediting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for his “dedicated approach” towards “strengthening Saudi-Indian ties,” Al-Ghamdi pointed to several high level visits from India to Saudi Arabia in the recent weeks. Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s “exclusive” visit to Saudi Arabia was followed by that of Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia. The Indian Premier is expected to visit Saudi Arabia, later this year after the month of Ramadan, Al-Ghamdi said.
The tremendous progress made in Saudi-Indian bilateral ties is also marked by the opening of a Saudi school in New Delhi- the first of its kind for Arabs, the diplomat said.
Besides, he pointed to the increase in Saudi embassy’s staff here being another sign of the new importance assumed by two nations’ relations. Recently, he inaugurated Saudi Cultural Attache office in India, which will help Indians learn more about the country.
During his stay here, not only has he made many friends but in his words: “I feel sad on leaving India for I have fallen in love with this country.” Nevertheless, as he said: “I will definitely be visiting India frequently. As a diplomat has to carry on with these changes, I am looking forward to my new assignment.”
Al-Ghamdi is optimistic that in the coming days, Saudi-Indian ties will strengthen further. In this direction, he said, more “constructive” role needs to be played by Indian media. Where the media representatives in India are concerned, particularly the ones covering the Arab world, they have hailed the role played by Al-Ghamdi in strengthening Saudi-Indian ties. He has played a “great role” in their opinion. Thus, Al-Ghamdi has moved on, leaving a “memorable stamp” and an “irreversible turn” in the two countries’ relations!