India's prime minister in Saudi Arabia for first visit

AP News
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Posted: Apr 03, 2016 1:56 PM

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Saudi King Salman on Sunday during his first official visit to the kingdom, home to a large number of Indian laborers and a major trade partner that supplies around 19 percent of India's crude oil imports.

Modi's visit underscored the major business ties between the two countries, despite Saudi Arabia's historically close relationship with India's long-standing rival Pakistan. Modi visited Pakistan in December, suggesting a thawing of relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.

Saudi Arabia is traditionally India's largest supplier of crude oil, and India is one of the world's largest consumers of crude. Trade between the two countries reached $39 billion in 2014, according to a joint statement released after Modi's meeting with King Salman.

Saudi Arabia is seeking to keep its edge over rival Iran, which is looking to increase its own oil exports to India. The kingdom is also rushing to diversify its economy as lower global oil prices impact revenue.

During their meeting, the sides signed five agreements, including plans to cooperate in intelligence sharing related to terror financing and money laundering, as well as a labor cooperation agreement and another to promote bilateral investments in the private sector.

The two also agreed on the need to intensify defense cooperation through mutual visits by military experts and joint military exercises. In a joint statement, Salman and Modi said they strongly condemned terrorism and reject any attempts "to link this universal phenomenon to any particular race, religion or culture."

Modi, who has come under fire for his party's links to hard-line Hindu groups, has long had an uneasy relationship with his country's roughly 120 million Muslims.

Still, Modi gifted King Salman a gold-plated replica of a mosque in Kerala, India that was built by Arab traders in the early 7th Century. For his part, Salman awarded Modi Saudi Arabia's highest civilian honor, the King Abdulaziz Sash.

Modi also met Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef and held one-on-one talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and board chairman of Saudi oil giant Aramco, Abdulaziz al-Faleh, who is also the health minister. Earlier Sunday, he spoke at the Saudi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, met members of India's business community and visited an all-female information technology center run by the Indian Tata Consultancy Services in Riyadh.

Modi kicked off his tour Saturday with a visit to a labor camp where he was pictured eating a traditional South Asian dinner with Indian workers amid tight security.

India and other South Asian countries supply oil-rich Gulf Arab nations with millions of migrant laborers who take on low-paying jobs as construction workers, waiters, cleaners and drivers — jobs that Gulf nationals have often shunned. Many South Asian workers complain of various forms of abuse by their employers, such as having their passports and salaries withheld.

Modi was quoted on his Twitter account and in Indian media telling the workers Saturday evening in Riyadh that a round-the-clock helpline would be established for them. He said his government would create resource centers for Indian workers in Saudi Arabia's two largest cities of Riyadh and Jiddah.

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Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.