Question: When did you serve in Saudi Arabia and in what capacity?

Answer: I was posted as First Secretary, with the local rank of Counsellor, to the Embassy of India, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in March 1976 and served there for two years.

Question: Did you find it difficult to adjust, either socially or professionally, to life in Saudi Arabia?

Answer: Prior to his departure, my predecessor Mr. Hamid Ansari (currently, India’s Vice President) provided me with a thorough introduction to Saudi Arabia, which was enormously helpful.

Soon after arriving, however, I was surprised to find out from long-serving local staff at the Embassy and a few Indians who had resided in Saudi Arabia for more than three decades that I was the first non-Muslim Foreign Service Officer to serve in the Indian Embassy in Saudi Arabia.

I found it nearly impossible to socialize with Saudis. Moreover, although there was generally very close interaction within the diplomatic fraternity, obtaining information about local developments and Saudi policies and relations with other countries was not as easy as in more open societies. A great boon was reconnecting with good friends from previous postings who were serving in the British, Malaysian and Pakistani Embassies.

Question: When was India’s diplomatic mission to Saudi Arabia established? How important was this mission then, and how important has it become?

Answer: Independent India’s diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia was first set up in Jeddah in 1948, initially as a Consulate, then as a Consulate General, and later as a Legation. Since1957, it has been a full-fledged Embassy. The Indian Embassy moved to Riyadh in October 1985.

The fact that India from 1947 onwards has had the third-largest Muslim population in the world made the establishment of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia an absolute imperative since the two most holy places of Islam are located in Saudi Arabia and thousands of pilgrims visit for Umrah and the annual Haj. In those early years, the oil “factor” was a distinctly secondary factor.

Over the years, energy security has become exceedingly important to India. And Saudi Arabia has risen to become India’s largest source of imported oil. Nevertheless, oil will remain a secondary reason vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia for the foreseeable future, with the Islamic factor still being the preeminent one.

Question: How has Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Pakistan affected Indo-Saudi relations, if at all?

Answer: Saudi Arabia has had a special relationship with Pakistan since the latter’s inception as an avowedly Islamic state. In contrast, for decades India’s political and even economic relationship with Saudi Arabia was nothing to write home about. That was very much the case when I was posted in Saudi Arabia. The Indo-Saudi relationship progressed slowly during the 1980s and 1990s, but changed rather dramatically only in the past decade. Today, India’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is one of its most important strategic relationships, notwithstanding Saudi Arabia’s enduring ties with Pakistan. In our interactions with Saudi Arabia, we do not talk about their relationship with Pakistan, which is fully understood, but concentrate instead on areas of mutual benefit.

Question: What were some of the most memorable highlights or accomplishments of your posting to Saudi Arabia?

Answer: One highlight was our success in obtaining contracts for Indian companies to undertake projects in Saudi Arabia ― the first contracts awarded to Indian firms. This was an immensely satisfying achievement, all the more so because it resulted from my personal initiatives. You see, hardly anybody spoke of economic diplomacy in those days. In fact, most Indian Foreign Service officers seemed to regard such work with disdain. 

Question: What actions did you take that facilitated the awarding of these contracts?

Answer: I had met the Director General of the Yanbu Port Authority, a young Western-educated technocrat, at a reception and somehow, inexplicably, he and I developed a rapport. (Most regrettably I cannot recall his name). As it was not easy to get to know Saudis, I hoped that one well-disposed contact might lead to another. I learned from him that they were looking for a company to carry out dredging work at the new Yanbu port. Upon further investigation, I discovered that a new public sector company called the Dredging Corporation of India was in the process of being set up. I contacted an ex-naval officer, who, then in London, was returning to India to join the DCI in a senior capacity but planning to make a stopover in Jeddah. When he arrived in Jeddah, he stayed with me. I took him for a meeting with the Port Authority DG.

When we arrived for the meeting, a team from Bechtel ― consultants for the port ― was present. A lengthy discussion ensued. The ex-naval officer pointed out many technical deficiencies in the Bechtel presentations. He gave what obviously was a very credible and convincing presentation on what needed to be done and how. The DG was most impressed. Without any formal competitive tendering process and without the new DCI having any project execution experience, we were informed there and then ― after the Bechtel experts had been a little less than politely seen off ― that the job was ours. We were left very pleasantly stunned. The implementation of the project was well under way while I was still in Saudi Arabia.

Question: Was this initial, successful foray into the field of economic diplomacy your only effort on behalf of Indian companies during your time in Saudi Arabia?

Answer: A second, equally gratifying experience came as the result of an appointment I requested with the then-Saudi Industries Minister Ghazi Al-Gosaibi. Minister Al-Gosaibi was greatly respected by the diplomatic corps as a straightforward, no-nonsense, honest, and hardworking man ― renowned in Saudi cultural and intellectual circles as a poet and litterateur. The appointment was readily granted. So, I went to Riyadh, taking along a book of his poems to obtain his autograph.

I began our meeting by saying that we both come from Third World countries, societies and civilizations. I emphasized the particularly close contacts between many well-known Saudi merchant families and Bombay before the advent of the oil era. I sensed that this touched an emotional chord, which encouraged me to make an impassioned presentation about India’s technical capabilities and very considerable experience in executing projects in various fields. I then asked why all contracts were being given to Western countries at exorbitant costs when India could execute them far less expensively and should be given an opportunity.

My interlocutor ignored what must undoubtedly have seemed to him less than diplomatic language, particularly coming from a mere counselor-level officer from a country with which Saudi Arabia then had hardly any meaningful relationship. He said he was not aware that any Indian company had made significant bids for projects but that he would give India an opportunity. He then reacted extraordinarily positively by saying that he would be ready to leave for India within the next few days to have detailed discussions with relevant officials without suggesting that I obtain an invitation or that an Indian Minister serve as his host.

Unfortunately, I got a negative and thoroughly bureaucratic reply from the Ministry of External Affairs ticking me off for uncalled for activism. Undeterred, I then contacted two iconic figures, Mr. V. Krishnamurthy, Chairman of the public sector Bharat Heavy Electricals, and Secretary, Ministry of Industries, and Mr. Mantosh Sondhi, Secretary, Ministry of Heavy Industry. Both were delighted, and Mr. Sondhi offered to act as host. I escorted the Minister to Delhi. As a result, in 1977, BHEL was awarded a turnkey project for a 42-MW gas-based power station at Jizan and the construction of a related housing complex was subcontracted to Engineering Projects India. Once again, the project was awarded without going through a formal competitive tendering process.

Mr. Krishnamurthy and Mr. Mohamed Fazal, Chairman of EPI, came to Riyadh to sign the agreement. But tender documents of course had to be filled out. I recall spending, along with technical staff from BHEL, up to 16 hours a day for 3–4 days wrestling with hundreds of pages of documents. Work had started before I left Saudi Arabia.

By the 1990s the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) had emerged as the most prestigious Indian commercial and industrial entity. CII had originated in the early 1970s as the Association of Indian Engineering Industries (AIEI). Its first overseas office was opened in 1977 in Dammam ― signifying early recognition of the potential of a robust Indo-Saudi economic relationship.

Overall, as these developments indicate, a new and excellent beginning had been made in expanding into entirely new areas of economic cooperation. 

Question: In your professional capacity during your posting to Saudi Arabia, did you encounter any particularly challenging situations?

Answer: During my tenure in Saudi Arabia, a peculiar problem arose: the Saudi Government suddenly decided to ban Sikhs from the country.  

The wealth garnered from the astronomical rise of oil prices in 1973 had sparked an unprecedented construction boom began in the oil-rich countries of the Arabian Peninsula. This created opportunities for a steadily increasing influx of mostly unskilled labor in the construction sector, mainly from South Asian countries. Even though the number of Pakistanis was consistently higher than that of Indians, one category of Indians rather quickly acquired a niche and prized reputation: Sikhs, who were known throughout the Indian subcontinent for their skills as drivers of heavy-duty trucks and operators of heavy-duty construction equipment. Some contractors from eastern Saudi Arabia whose senior family elders had been very familiar with India in the pre-oil era and had been frequent visitors to Bombay were the first to recruit Sikhs.

The number of Sikhs was still small, but started increasing rapidly. This alarmed the Pakistani Embassy, which initiated an insidious propaganda campaign against the Sikhs, saying that they were defiling the holy places since with their beards and turbans they were able to pass themselves off as Muslims and visit Mecca and Medina, which was prohibited to non-Muslims. Sikhs were accused of defying the Saudi ban on the practice of non-Muslim religions by keeping pictures of Guru Nanak, and their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, in their rooms, indulging in chanting and other religious practices. Their Pakistani detractors also said that the Sikhs had originated as a distinct group in India ― armed protectors of Hindus against their Muslim rulers.

Pakistani diplomats had excellent personal relationships, and they carried out this whispering campaign in influential circles. They may not have succeeded but in September 1976 or so there was an unfortunate incident in Dammam in which 200–300 Sikhs ― turbans removed, beards flowing, and carrying plywood kirpans ― had marched down one of the main streets shouting slogans to protest against unpaid salaries. The average Saudi had never seen a Sikh in the first place, let alone a bizarre procession of this nature; moreover, public gatherings, organized protests and demonstrations were prohibited in Saudi Arabia.

This incident proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. A ban was promptly imposed on the further recruitment of Sikhs, and the withdrawal of those already in Saudi Arabia was ordered. The Pakistanis felt vindicated. No formal public announcement was made, but the Saudi Embassy in India was instructed not to issue any more visas to Sikhs. The Indian Embassy was initially informed only verbally of this decision. Needless to say, for a democratic, secular and pluralistic society and country such as India, this discriminatory treatment would have caused popular outrage and extreme embarrassment for the government had it become public knowledge. Even so, it was necessary to have this misconceived ban lifted.

As is usual, discussions were initiated between the Embassies and the Foreign Ministries, and notes were exchanged. However, at my own initiative, I tried a different approach ― the convening of a meeting in Damman of prominent contractors from eastern Saudi Arabia. At the meeting, I told them that the Embassy would strongly advise Indian labor not to repeat such behavior as had recently occurred and would undertake to ensure that such incidents would not recur. I also told them that, as they surely realized, the Pakistani campaign against Sikhs was entirely baseless and politically motivated. They were a very receptive audience and assured me that the matter would be taken up in their traditional manner in informal personal interactions with the authorities.

Later in Jeddah, I sought an appointment with Sheikh Mohamed bin Laden, the eldest brother of Osama bin Laden, who, de facto, ran the bin Laden construction company, the largest and the most influential contracting company in Saudi Arabia with a reach to the highest echelons. I put forward the same arguments, which seemed to have appealed to him. He told me that since the decision was taken at the very highest echelons of the government and the royal family, we should remain patient. By early 1977, the ban was reversed.

I might mention, en passant, that while I was meeting with Sheikh Mohamed, a slim, tall, rather good-looking young man with piercing eyes entered the room. Sheikh Mohamed’s eyes lit up with obvious pride. The two embraced. Sheikh Mohamed introduced the young man to me, describing him as the brightest member of the family ― an excellent student whom they were hoping to send to “Cal Tech” (i.e. California Institute of Technology). Sheikh Mohamed said he was confident that one day this young man would achieve fame as a great scientist or engineer … He certainly did become rather well known!

Question: How, if at all, did your being a non-Muslim impact your professional work while in Saudi Arabia?

Answer: One experience comes immediately to mind. Despite being a non-Muslim, I found myself serving as the Embassy’s Haj officer on the eve of the 1977 pilgrimage season when, tragically, the colleague who normally discharged (was to have assumed) this responsibility died in a car accident. Though I was aware of the various tasks that the Embassy must discharge in the context of the Haj, actually performing and supervising them was an altogether different experience ― valuable for the future and came in very handy when I was Head of the Division six years later in the Ministry. Handling the Haj is a politically sensitive and delicate responsibility. Keeping the high-level, high-profile Haj delegation that comes every year in good humor is a truly Herculean task. Today, the number of pilgrims exceeds 170,000.

The post of the Haj officer is considered a prized posting in the Indian Muslim community despite the fact that he inevitably becomes embroiled in factional Muslim politics and is the constant target of different factions of which he perceived not to be a part. Not being a Muslim I was spared all this. I had made it clear to the Haj delegation that they will have to abide by the Embassy’s advice and luckily for me the Ambassador gave me full authority and did not interfere, something perhaps to be expected from a retired ICS officer. Since, as a non-Muslim, I was not allowed to go to Mecca and Medina, I did not know people or entities there and thus had no vested interests of any kind. Everybody knew ― another reason why I was not targeted. It was not surprising that the Haj delegation report described it as one of the smoothest and best Haj.

I was a little surprised when the Saudi authorities did not allow me to accompany the Haj delegation during its customary call on the King. I was, however, received by the relevant Ministers and senior officials in the course of the discharge of my duties. This was a unique experience which no Hindu is likely to ever have in the future.

Note: This is the second installment in a series of interviews conducted by MAP Director Dr. John Calabrese which follow the career of one of India's most distinguished former diplomats, Ambassador Ranjit Gupta. These exchanges focus on some of Ambassador Gupta's most memorable experiences and firsthand accounts of developments in the Middle East during his several postings to the region.  See  interview on the first posting  (Cairo, Egypt: 1965-1968) at