New Delhi, Asharq Al-Awsat—It was five in the evening when Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid sat down for an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat. It was a friendly and open meeting, taking place at Khurshid’s office at India’s Ministry of External Affairs.
The minister is perched at the summit of Raisina Hill in Dehli, which is also home to the Indian Presidency, the Office of the Prime Minister, and the Defense Ministry. The majority of government buildings in New Dehli, a modern district at the heart of the larger Dehli metropolis, were built by the British before India’s independence in 1947. Not far over the horizon is the India Gate, designed by British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.
It was here that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Salman Bin Abdulaziz, met with India’s deputy prime minister and its defense minister on Wednesday. Part of an official state visit to India by the Crown Prince, his visit, which ends Friday, boosted relations between the two countries.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the sidelines of Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s visit to India, Foreign Minister Khurshid highlighted the recent defense cooperation agreement signed by New Delhi and Riyadh, spoke about India’s intentions to improve energy cooperation with the Kingdom, and put forward India’s view on a number of major regional concerns, not least the ongoing Syrian conflict and the Iranian nuclear project.
Salman Khurshid earned a BA from St Stephen’s College Delhi and an MA from St Edmund Hall, Oxford University. He later served as President of the Delhi Public School Society from 1995–2005. He began his political career working in the office of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and subsequently held a number of ministerial portfolios, including Foreign Minister (1991–1996) and later Minister for Minority Affairs and Corporate Affairs.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What would you say about King Abdullah’s 2006 visit to India which was reciprocated by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2012. How do you view Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz’s current visit to India?
Salman Khurshid: There is something very interesting I would like share with you. Our current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, visited Saudi Arabia as finance minister under the then-Congress prime minister, Narsimha Rao, nearly two decades ago. After his return, we had a chat where he sounded very bubbly about the transformation the Kingdom was witnessing, with its youth going to the world’s best universities, making a significant change in Saudi society. The enthusiastic Dr. Singh then announced that he was amazed to see the new Saudi Arabia. A completely new, educated and professional generation is building it progressively and shedding its traditional image.
Back then, Dr. Singh stressed that India needed to rebuild and re-discover its relationship with the Kingdom, since Saudi Arabia provided an excellent opportunity to do business. But, unfortunately, both countries lost momentum, as each was wrapped up in individual regional tensions that erased the precious 20 years of mutual relations between two nations.
Moreover, since Saudi Arabia has a close relationship with Pakistan, it was difficult for it to take sides in the India–Pakistan confrontation. We could say that the Kingdom was in limbo; that it had to choose between two friends. But, over the years, both countries decided to look beyond their disagreements and work towards building their relationship further in the changing world.
During my recent visit to the Kingdom I met the Interior Minister, who is a remarkable man. He categorically told me that nobody [will ever be allowed to] harm India from Saudi soil in any way. He shared with me that whenever he comes across a person who is an extremist or working against the establishment, he calls up his family [the extremist’s family] and tells his parents that he is going to save their son and not put him in prison. This demonstrates a great foresightedness on his part; he is a man who is greatly admired for his efforts to win back the confidence of the estranged youth even though he himself survived an attack.
So we can say both countries over the past eight or nine years have genuinely reinvested in their mutual relationship. Although the problems of Pakistan, Palestine and Syria still remain unresolved, the countries have evolved a better understanding. I am happy that we have made significant strides in all areas of our bilateral engagement. Our economic engagement has grown rapidly in the past few years, with bilateral trade reaching 43 billion US dollars in 2012–2013. Yet this is far below the potential that exists in our relationship. We need to diversify our trade relations. We need to focus on non-oil trade as well. During the recent Joint Commission meeting, our two sides came up with an agenda that aims to double our two-way trade in five years. We also need to work towards deeper economic engagement, including through more investments, joint ventures and technology transfers.
Q: What would you say about the Defense Cooperation Agreement the two sides have signed? What are the future prospects for it?
I am happy that we signed the defense Memorandum of Understanding with Saudi Arabia. It will help defense personnel work closely and learn from the experience of one another.
The two sides have already been co-operating on intelligence sharing and continuing dialogue on counter-terrorism, but defense cooperation is something specific. Again, I would stress that it should not be merely buyer-seller, but rather go beyond this to see the two sides working on training, joint production and military exercises.
But that does not mean we are going to replace the US [in terms of defense cooperation]. I was specifically asked whether India would step in if the US leaves, but I categorically refused to even consider the idea saying that the US and India have different roles to play. We are indeed supportive of friends of the US, but have no inclination or capacity to station our troops or navy where the US has currently engaged its troops. However, to supplement and compliment anything that Saudi Arabia is doing with US, we are willing to cooperate in fields of training, joint weapons production, visits of naval ships, and joint exercises. This would mean that we would have strategic relationship and learn more about our defense perceptions. India wants to build defense cooperation in such a way that the Arab world or the GCC countries become self-sufficient and need no external military assistance.
Q: The Saudi–India Extradition Treaty of 2010 has helped build trust between our two countries. In 2012 the Kingdom extradited three Indian terrorists under the auspices of that treaty, including one who masterminded the 2008 attacks on Mumbai. How do you think the two countries can cooperate further in countering terrorism?
It was an evolutionary treaty between the two sides and has become a critical foundation of our collaboration and cooperation. We have suffered immensely from terrorism. Our security concerns are yet another reason for closer cooperation between our two countries. The growing turbulence in our shared region makes this cooperation even more urgent. Our two sides have been cooperating in the fight against international terrorism, money laundering, narcotics, and arms and human trafficking.
The Kingdom has been extremely determined to make some very difficult extraditions to India without crying much over them. You know extradition is never an easy thing. One is caught in a dilemma: first, you have to satisfy the country you are extraditing to and, second, your home constituency where you are extraditing from—it’s a critical situation. Thus, it requires a tremendous level of determination and mutual faith between the two nations and there can be no doubt that India owes the Kingdom for undertaking some critical extraditions.
Q: Let us now turn to the economy, what would you say about the renewed economic and business cooperation between two countries over the years?
A healthier understanding of each other’s regional political compulsions has facilitated a new era of business and economic cooperation between the two nations. From an Indian point of view, we don’t want to build just a buyer–seller relationship based on oil, but rather two-way trade, weaving a basket filled with trade and investments. Taking a leap towards that, Tata Motors have already set up a Jaguar plant in the Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia has smartly invested in the Bangalore Research Center. Thus, I can proudly emphasize that relation between the two leader nations is multi-level with immense sincerity on each side to take it to a much higher level.
From an Indian perspective, I would say that we highly value the visit of Crown Prince Salman to India. We will sincerely endeavor to strengthen our ties further with the Kingdom on all fronts. Furthermore, India has a vital stake in the Middle East, with over 7 million Indian nationals living and working there and sending back remittances of over 30 billion US dollars every year. The Middle East is our largest regional trading bloc, with two-way annual trade in excess of 180 billion US dollars.
Q: India sources approximately 60 percent of its energy needs from Gulf states, primarily Saudi Arabia, equivalent to nearly 44 billion US dollars’ worth of oil and gas products annually. What steps could India take to further improve trade with the Kingdom?
Saudi Arabia continues to be our most important source of energy. We need to transform our buyer–seller relationship into one of deeper energy partnership, through investments in petrochemical complexes, modernization of facilities, and joint ventures not only bilaterally, but also in third countries. We also need to expand our non-oil trade. Our bilateral non-oil trade was 8.7 billion US dollars in 2012–2013.
Q: What about India’s future energy needs? Does India hope to look beyond Saudi Arabia to meet them?
We have to formulate our energy security policy on the basis of the biting reality that would fulfill our energy security needs. Unless there is a dramatic shift on renewable energy, India could never unilaterally fulfill its own energy needs. After the Japan incident, a lot of insecurities have cropped up among the masses about the nuclear energy projects in India. So we would continue to depend on our traditional energy suppliers though we have cut down on supplies from Iran for obvious reasons beyond our control, and we appreciate Saudi Arabia’s support. We indeed would anticipate energy requirements from Saudi Arabia and also look forward to major supplies in gas from Canada. There are possibilities in the Central Asian region if the pipelines come to India, such the Iran, Oman and Uzbekistan pipelines. There are opportunities, but a sensible approach would be to keep a balance between various sources of energy and not to depend on any one single thing.
We would like to build a relationship with Saudi Arabia in the fields of renewable energy, like solar and wind energy, besides hydrocarbons. And, as Saudi Arabia has already initiated a major research in solar energy, we both can collaborate on clean energy projects.
Q: Let us now turn to regional issues, where do Indian–Pakistani relations currently stand?
India desires peaceful, friendly and cooperative relations with Pakistan. We are committed to resolving all outstanding issues with Pakistan, including the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, through bilateral dialogue on the basis of the Simla Agreement. For that to happen, there needs to be an environment free from terror and violence.
We are still hoping that words are matched with deeds. Though there have been many difficult times. We want to live in peace with Pakistan, and of course peaceful India–Pakistan relations envisage a peaceful South Asia. We have told them to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism on their home soil. On that, they may say they are also victims of terrorism but that does not help us, since we are victimized. We want Pakistan to work seriously on terrorism and accountability for what happened in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. We would like Pakistan to expedite the cases they have initiated against those responsible for the Mumbai terror attacks using Pakistani soil. If Pakistan works sincerely towards this, it would help confidence-building between our two nations.
Q: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is also visiting India this week. How does India view its relations with Iran, particularly given they have been strained over the past couple of years?
India maintains friendly relations with all countries in the Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both countries are an integral part of our economic and security space, and both play a significant role in our energy security architecture.
We have been consistent with regards to our policy on Iran. We share a special relationship with the Persian country, which is a part of our extended neighborhood: our neighborhood stops at Afghanistan, and beyond that is Iran. We believe they have a larger role to play in Afghanistan despite our differences with them or with other nations of the Arab world. India believes that despite all these differences Iran can’t be ignored. They have already suffered a lot over the years because of sanctions, and we are happy that they have reached an agreement with the US. There was an unending race for nuclear prowess and now, at least, that’s been slowed down or stopped. There are lots of doubts in the Arab world regarding what America is offering, but we must work towards a nuclear-free Middle East. It is to the benefit of the Arab world that Iran does not have nuclear weapons, though it should have the right to use it [nuclear technology] for peaceful purposes, as we do.
The difference between them and us is that they signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty while we didn’t, and we believe that if you sign an international document, you should abide by it. We have told them this. Initially, they found it difficult to understand what we were saying, but over a period of time they understood that we were sincerely saying this in their interest. We want to see them grow and be at peace with all their neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, and if there are some doubts and suspicions, they must be cleared up through peaceful dialogue.
Q: What about the fighting in Syria?
To be honest, our job in Syria has only been to call on the parties to stop fighting. We have been saying that frequently, and we were invited to the conference in Geneva. The fact is that talking helps and that nothing after talking is bad. We are still saying, ‘Please stop the killing first, and then negotiate.’
It’s sad for the Arab world that Syria continues to simmer. We are stakeholders in the Middle East, and we are also suffering from the Syrian turmoil, since 6 million Indians are present in the Gulf region. What happens to Arabs also happens our people, and so we hope that the turmoil ends soon.
Q: India’s relations with the Gulf are much closer than those it has with Southeast Asia, yet the Gulf does not resonate as much as Southeast Asia in India’s foreign policy. What do you think are the reasons for this?
I have already outlined India’s vital stakes in its close relationship with the Gulf countries. Similarly, countries in Southeast Asia are in our extended neighborhood. Our “Look East” policy has been an unqualified success, and our relationship [with Southeast Asia] has progressed immensely in the past decade. Similarly, maintaining our close ties with the Gulf countries also appears very high on our list of foreign policy [priorities]. Our intense bilateral dialogue is evident from the fact that in the past nine months, four heads of state or government from these countries [in the Gulf] have visited us.
Q: What would the Indian stance be on the US threat to leave Afghanistan without signing any pact with the Afghan government?
There is a big challenge for negotiating peace in Afghanistan, and for us the sovereignty of the country is paramount. We also know that military intervention is not a solution, since if this were the case then the Afghan issue would have been resolved over the past 12 years. We think it would not be a good idea for the US to leave Afghanistan at such a critical moment unless the Afghan people want this. There are some issues that Americans and President Karzai have amongst themselves and we hope that they resolve them amicably.
There should not be a vacuum. The defense and security forces of Afghanistan are already sharing a big responsibility, and we hope the Afghans work together towards peace. If they need any help from India, we are there. We are already cooperating with them in training and capacity-building, as well as providing adequate infrastructure in developing roads, dams, power transmission and railway projects.
India does not have an exit policy from Afghanistan and we would continue to support Afghans in a way they want us to. We want all countries around Afghanistan to make a contribution in building Afghanistan so that it succeeds. In addition, India and Pakistan do not have to see Afghanistan as a battleground on which to settle their scores. We hope Pakistan understands that we are not in Afghanistan to exclude them from the country as a strong Afghanistan benefits Pakistan.