Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived here on Saturday on his first visit to the oil-rich kingdom, setting for himself a vast agenda of discussions with the Saudi leadership over the next two days.
In a departure from normal protocol norms, the Saudi Arabian leadership rolled out the red carpet to the Prime Minister as he was received at the royal terminal of the King Khalid International Airport by Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, who is also the first Deputy Prime Minister and Defence and Civil Aviation Minister.
In a rare gesture, the entire Cabinet — including Riyadh Governor Prince Abdul Aziz bin Mohammad bin Ayaf and Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz — was at the airport to receive Dr. Singh and his official delegation. The nearly 40-km route from the airport to the city centre was lined with Indian and Saudi Arabian flags.
A formal reception to the Prime Minister will be accorded on Sunday.
Dr. Singh’s three-day visit puts an end to the lull in India-Saudi Arabia ties and is aimed at reinvigorating relations. He is only the third Indian Prime Minister to have paid a visit to Saudi Arabia, after Jawaharlal Nehru in 1955 and Indira Gandhi in 1982.
The visit comes four years after the historic visit to India of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who was the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi in 2006. At that time, the two countries signed the Delhi Declaration, which constitutes a blueprint for bilateral cooperation in the future.
“The Gulf region is an area of vital importance for India’s security and prosperity. India and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have enjoyed special relations based on several millennia of civilisational and cultural linkages and people-to-people exchanges. The Kingdom is India’s largest and most reliable supplier of our energy needs from the region. Saudi Arabia is home to an Indian community numbering about 1.8 million,” the Prime Minister said in a statement prior to his departure for Riyadh.
Dr. Singh said both India and Saudi Arabia had much to gain by cooperating with each other in combating extremism and terrorism. He will discuss with the Saudi leadership the situation in Afghanistan and other regional issues of mutual interest.
Pointing out that trade and investment linkages have grown though they remain much below the potential of the two economies, Dr. Singh said these ties must be broad-based. “There is great scope for opening new frontiers of cooperation in the areas of security, defence, science and technology, space, human resource development and knowledge-based industries,” he said.
The Prime Minister will address members of the influential Majlis Al-Shura, as well as the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Murli Deora, Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor, besides senior officials, are part of Dr. Singh’s delegation.