PM’s Gulf visit a landmark in more ways than one

November 11th, 2008 - 6:25 pm ICT by IANS  

Doha, Nov 11 (IANS) With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh concluding his maiden visit to the Gulf, home to nearly five million Indians, ties between India and this region got a fresh boost in more ways than one.The long overdue visit signalled the launch of a major initiative by New Delhi to tap into surplus Gulf funds during a global economic crisis, opened up fresh vistas for India’s energy security, and gave it a greater role in the general security scenario in West Asia.

“The Gulf region is an area of great importance to India,” the prime minister said while addressing a gathering of expatriate Indians in Oman, the first stop in his two-nation tour, which also took him to Qatar.

“It is part of our extended neighbourhood, and home to five million Indians. It is the largest source of energy supplies. We have active trade and investment interests. Piracy, criminal activities and terrorism on our seas and land threaten the Gulf countries as well,” he stated.

As the world reels under a global financial crisis, it is the Gulf nations, flush with surging oil revenues, that have been able to comparatively shore up their economies with several remedial measures.

And investors of the region, having lost faith in the West, are increasingly looking at markets such as India, China and southeast Asia to put their money in.

The India-Oman Joint Investment Fund, signed during the Muscat leg of Manmohan Singh’s tour, is an important development in this regard.

The fund has formally opened up investment opportunities to Omani businesses in India’s infrastructure sector, which, according to the prime minister, needs over $500 billion in the next five years.

Set up with a seed capital of $100 million - shared equally by the India and Oman - the fund is designed to identify projects in infrastructure, health, utilities, tourism, urban infrastructure and other sectors in both countries.

Oman’s ruler Sultan Qaboos Bin Al Said, during a meeting with Manmohan Singh that lasted well over four hours, said steps were needed to eliminate delays in ventures emanating from the fund.

Consequently, it was decided that a special committee headed by Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia and his Omani counterpart will be set up to activate the fund and submit a report within six months.

This is expected to send a positive signal to other Gulf investors leading to more such agreements between India and other Gulf nations.

In Qatar, which has the third largest gas reserves in the world, the Indian side made a similar pitch for investment.

“The reserve of funds in Qatar is fairly high. One area of cooperation under consideration is how a mechanism can be formed by which investments from Qatar can be made into different sectors in India,” N. Ravi, Secretary (East) in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters in Doha.

“In the present international financial situation, it assumes greater importance, particularly when you have the source of funds at one end and the use of funds at the other,” he said, adding that India’s infrastructure sector needed investment.

Even as India works to sustain its growth rate, its energy needs have also been growing and energy security is a major issue that it prioritised with the Gulf.

In Qatar, India called for increased supplies of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in addition to what it gets now.

Under a 25-year agreement signed in 1999, Qatar has been supplying India with 7.5 million tonnes of LNG annually in two phases since 2004.

But India wants 2.5 million tonnes more, and with Petroleum Minister Murli Deora joining the Indian delegation in Qatar, signs are positive by all accounts.

“There are expectations that, after due discussions, the supply of gas might be increased subject to mutual agreement,” Ravi said.

Linked to the issue of energy security is the security of the sea-lanes in the Arabian Gulf, so vital for India.

Both Qatar and Oman are strategically placed along this sea route through which India’s crude supplies come.

India already has two agreements with Oman - one on defence cooperation and another on joint cooperation on combating crime.

During Manmohan Singh’s visit, Qatar became the second Gulf country with whom India signed similar pacts.

A new agreement on security and law enforcement signed with Qatar lays out the framework for sharing of information and database on threats posed by terrorists, money laundering and smuggling of narcotics.

Another on defence cooperation will allow for training programmes by both sides and exchange of goodwill visits and experts.

“Our links with the region go back several centuries, and so we are not strangers to the Gulf. We would like to view ourselves as a stabilising and moderating voice in a world that is faced with threats of extremism, intolerance and terrorism,” the prime minister said in an interview in Oman.

As the Gulf nations work to diversify their economies to reduce dependence on oil revenues, India will be an important partner in this effort.

Which is why education and human resource development were accorded much importance during the visit.

India and Oman signed a manpower development agreement, which will open employment opportunities in that country for Indians.

And in Doha, the prime minister said in an interview that India and Qatar were working on developing a comprehensive framework for cooperation in the field of human resource development.

In Muscat, following his meeting with Oman’s Deputy Prime Minister, he had said: “The political leadership of Oman and India are united in our resolve to cement our relationship into a mighty strategic relationship.”

Will this encompass the whole of Gulf as well? One will have to wait and see.

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