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Is Saudi Crown Prince MBS good for the world? As the oil kingdom rises as a modern global power, here is what it means for India

On the international stage, MBS has vocally supported India, recognizing its burgeoning economy as a lucrative market with promising returns on investment. Additionally, MBS shares a great camaraderie with the Indian PM which reflects sharply in the policies of both nations towards each other.

The Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammed Bin Salman arrived in India on a three-day State visit during which he attended the G20 Summit in the national capital over the weekend. After participating in the G20 Summit, he held a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on Monday (11 September). 

During the bilateral meeting, the two leaders co-chaired the First Leaders’ Meeting of the Strategic Partnership Council. They discussed all aspects of bilateral relations and international issues of mutual interest. Following the bilateral meeting, Secretary (CPV & OIA) Ausaf Sayeed addressed the media regarding the issues covered in the meeting. 

The MEA official announced that during the Saudi crown prince’s state visit as many as eight agreements have been signed between the two nations. These include agreements in the field of energy; digitalisation and electronic manufacturing; agreements between India’s CVC (Chief Vigilance Commission) and Saudi’s corruption oversight committee; National Archives of two sides; Invest India and Saudi’s Minister of Investment; Axim Banks; SIDBI and Saudi’s SME bank; and agreement in the field of desalination.

MEA official Sayeed added that the two sides also agreed to expedite the India-GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) FTA (free trade agreement) negotiations which will boast economic cooperation between both nations. Additionally, both sides agreed to strengthen cooperation in the FinTech field and explore trading in the local currencies.

He further added that India and Saudi Arabia have agreed to jointly set up a task force that will help in identifying and channelling the 100 Billion Dollar investments which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had promised earlier. 

The increasing trade ties between India and Saudi Arabia have strengthened the overall strategic partnership between both nations. Notably, India is Saudi Arabia’s second-largest trading partner whereas Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth-largest trading partner. 

India Middle East Europe Economic Corridor

The trade link between both nations recently received a major boost in the form of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEEC). This ambitious project of a rail-shipping corridor aims to establish India as a significant global hub for international business and commerce by linking India, the Middle East, and the EU.

The oil-kingdom is marching toward the post-fossil fuel world

Following the G20 Summit where the announcement regarding IMEEC was made, several world leaders have hailed the launch of the new economic corridor as a huge boost for the global economy.

Parallely, some experts are calling it a slingshot that has the potential to challenge and even smash the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project into smithereens. 

MBS and diversification of Saudi Arabia’s economy

Meanwhile, several experts view Saudi’s cooperation in this project and his state visit to India as part of a larger strategic vision of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman who is on a spree to reform the Saudi Kingdom. Evidently, 38-year-old Saudi’s de-facto ruler who is popularly known by his initials MBS, has been calling the shot in the Kingdom for at least 5 years. Under the MBS regime, the kingdom has been diversifying the Saudi economy in a world where reliance on oil is diminishing. 

In a post-fossil fuel world, the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia aims not only to preserve its influence on the global stage but also to emerge as a modern global power. 

Under Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia is future-proofing its oil-based economy by emerging as an investment, sporting, and tourism hub. On the domestic front, he is drawing investment and attraction for tourism in his ambitious NEOM Project which would have a zero-carbon city called ‘The Line’ in the Northwestern region of the kingdom. 

Additionally, he has been luring world-class foreign professionals under the golden visa scheme. The scheme allows foreign investors to relocate to Saudi Arabia by making a substantial investment in the country’s economy in exchange for a residence permit. 

However, the outreach is not limited to luring investment and foreign professionals, MBS’ regime is using its fat cheque to challenge European hegemony in hosting lucrative sporting leagues like football and lured several superstars this summer including Christiano Ronaldo, Mane, Gerrard, and Benzema among others. The aim is to give a transformative ‘tourist-friendly’ image to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

MBS and the Kingdom’s policy toward India

On the international stage, MBS has vocally supported India, recognizing its burgeoning economy as a lucrative market with promising returns on investment. Additionally, MBS shares a great camaraderie with the Indian PM which reflects sharply in the policies of both nations towards each other. Over the years, Saudi Arabia has been seen as a trusted Indian partner in the Middle East, and the strategic depth in ties was solidly marked when the Kingdom bestowed its highest civilian award ‘Order of Abdulaziz Al Saud’ to PM Narendra Modi. 

As part of its tilt, the Kingdom which once leaned toward Pakistan, is now partnering with India in multiple sectors from space to intelligence sharing and the Kingdom was up in arms to host the first-ever visit of an Indian high-ranking defense officer in December 2020 when the then Chief of Army Staff Gen. M.M. Naravane commenced his historic visit to Saudi Arabia. 

The 100 billion USD investment announcement in India was part of his larger plan to diversify beyond oil and investment in the future like retail, and real-estate sectors among others. Evidently, during his current state visit to India, MBS and PM Modi signed 47 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to bolster investment in both countries.

Saudi’s de-facto ruler MBS pushes for modernization: With focus on religious and gender-based tolerance

An old video of Saudi Crown Prince MBS is doing rounds on the internet where he is promising to reform the entire region of the Middle East and promises that he will work to make the region the ‘New Europe’ in his lifetime. 

In the video, MBS says, “I believe the Middle East will be the new Europe. In 5 years, Saudi Arabia will be a completely different country. This is the Saudi war. This is my war. I want to see the Middle East on top of the world before I die.”

However, to draw investment, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has to undergo a radical image transformation from a hardline Sunni Islamist nation to that of a tolerant nation that respects Human Rights and tolerates multiple faiths. 

For this, MBS has vowed that he will return Saudi Arabia on the path of moderate Islam and shed the ultraconservative image of the oil-rich kingdom.

In one interview, he said, “What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them being Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”

On reverting to moderate Islam, MBS once said, “We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. 70% of the Saudis are younger than 30, honestly, we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.”

To discourage hardcore theological practices, Saudi Arabia banned abaya in the exam halls and asked female students to conform to prescribed uniforms. 

As part of his soft-Islam push, Saudi Arabia is improving its credentials on tolerance be it religious or gender-based. Evidently, in 2018, the MBS regime lifted a ban on female drivers and expanded the rights of women in the country. Subsequently, it has allowed hiring female drivers as part of new professions permitted for recruitment through an official e-platform designated for domestic labour.

A similar women-friendly push was witnessed when the Kingdom lifted the restrictions and allowed women to undergo the Hajj pilgrimage without a ‘Mehram’. 

From India alone, more than 4,000 women performed Hajj pilgrimage without a Mehram, marking a historic first.  

As part of MBS’ Vision 2030 and to improve religious tolerance in the Kingdom, the MBS regime introduced a new curriculum which includes Hindu epic Ramayana and Mahabharata. Additionally, other significant elements of Indian culture like yoga and Ayurveda have also been included in the school curriculum.

Coming out of shadows: Independent geopolitical clout

During the Presidential debates, Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden raked in several controversies that troubled the US relationship with the Saudi Kingdom when he assumed office in January 2020. These include the alleged involvement of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Kingdom’s policy of arming rebels in other countries like Houthi rebels in Yemen.  

Since then, Saudi Arabia has adopted policies that reflect that it has a brain of its own rather than playing the role of junior alliance partner of the United States. The relationship worsened when the US ended its aid to Saudi-led forces in Yemen in 2021.  

As a result, Saudi Arabia refused to bow down to US pressure over the Ukraine war and didn’t play along with US demand to regulate oil supply instead it has worked alongside Russia on this issue. In the immediate aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine war, when the USA was trying its level best to isolate Russia globally, there were reports that MBS just refused to take Biden’s phone calls, ignoring requests to pump up oil supplies.

However, the biggest hit to US interest is the gradual shift from the petro-dollar as Saudi Arabia has stated that it is open to transacting in non-US Dollar currencies. Apparently, this was also a major issue that was discussed when Saudi Prime Minister MBS met with PM Modi during his state visit. 

It was in this context that during the G20 Summit in India, PM Modi ‘breaking the ice’ between MBS and Joe Biden, and the eventual announcement of the IMEEEC was seen as a significant positive development.

Even in this geopolitical power balancing, Saudi Arabia shares its larger geopolitical interests with India and it recently joined the BRICS where India is an active member of the grouping. During his current India visit, MBS has thanked PM Modi for accepting Saudi Arabia’s membership in the BRICS.

Overall, be it in the geopolitical arena, investment opportunities, or growing religious tolerance in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the MBS regime could seemingly turn out a promising sign for India through which the roads of Middle Eastern power politics could be accessed better than ever. 

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Paurush Gupta
Paurush Gupta
Proud Bhartiya, Hindu, Karma believer. Accidental Journalist who loves to read and write. Keen observer of National Politics and Geopolitics. Cinephile.

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