Two of Islam’s holiest cities, Makkah and Medina will now have an Indian connection.
According to government sources, the Indian labour force will be roped in for the Haramain High Speed Railway project — Saudi Arabia’s plan to connect the two cities by high speed trains. The rails for the tracks will also be supplied by Indian companies.
Government sources pointed out the evolution in India-Saudi ties at a time when Saudi Deputy Prime Minister and Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud arrives here on Wednesday for a three-day visit, his second visit to the country in four years.
Till recently, Saudi Arabia was India’s biggest crude supplier while receiving labour for its construction projects. These two factors have remained constant although there are operational hiccups. Saudi petro giant Aramco turned down India’s request for more extra light crude and withdrew credit facilities for an Indian public sector oil company.
Officials consider Saudi-India cooperation in defence a major development, especially because they have stopped viewing their security and defence ties in binary terms — choosing between India and Pakistan.
The two sides had agreed on a defence MoU when A.K. Antony became the first Indian Defence Minister to visit Riyadh in 2012. New Delhi expects to discuss this further with the Crown Prince who is also the Saudi Defence Minister and is known as a consensus builder in Riyadh’s corridors of power. Officials do not discount the possibility of the MoU being signed during his visit.
For now, India is setting its sights on railways. Apart from the mega contract for L&T for part of work on the Riyadh Metro project, there are other opportunities worth about $100 billion opening up as Saudi Arabia sets in motion a network extension plan for the next 30 years.
Government sources admitted that the Chinese had a headstart in most of the works opening up for international tendering such as heavy haul trains and tracks or high speed trains. But work of this nature is labour intensive and the expectation is Indian companies will be preferred .This is because having worked for decades in the Gulf, workers from the subcontinent are considered socially compatible with the ethos of the region than the Chinese.
There are also signs of Saudi Arabia’s second most influential royal’s visit becoming a catalyst for Riyadh’s participation in LNG or oil refining projects being planned at Dahej, Ennore, Mangalore, Paradip and Kochi.
The investment could come from the flush-with-funds Kingdom Holding Company which has already made investments in Four Seasons Hotel and Citi Bank.