PM likely to visit Saudi Arabia in February or March

As prime minister Manmohan Singh plans another trip to Saudi Arabia after two aborted trips, Saudi Arabia says it has "delivered" on its promise of replacing the UAE as the prime source for India's crude oil imports.

Speaking to reporters, Faisal H Trad, Saudi envoy said over the past three years, Saudi Arabia has emerged as the top source for India's crude oil imports, with India now taking $23.5 billion (or close to 600,000 barrels a day) worth of oil from the gulf kingdom. King Abdullah had promised that India's requirements of oil would be taken care of by Saudi Arabia.

During the forthcoming visit by the PM, which would be something of a return visit after the king was the chief guest at the Republic Day in 2006, India and Saudi Arabia are expected to sign around nine agreements including an extradition treaty and one pertaining to transfer of sentenced persons.

According to the Saudi ambassador, it was the king's visit in 2006 that brought a strategic change in the relationship between the two countries. It was also a Saudi king's first visit to India in 50 years.

Singh's earlier scheduled visits to Saudi Arabia had to be cancelled - the first because of his cardiac surgery and the second due to the G-20 meeting in Washington in November 2008.

The shift to Saudi Arabia is expected to yield some real and hoped-for political advantages. According to analysts, Saudi Arabia, as the biggest oil producer in the Middle East should ideally be India's biggest partner considering about 1.6 million Indians visit Saudi either as tourists or workers. Indians employed in Saudi Arabi account for $5 billion in remittances every year.