Prime Minister Narendra Modi will become, perhaps, the first foreign dignitary to interact with Saudi Arabian women entrepreneurs when he visits the country on 3 April.
Saudi Arabia, the world's most gender-segregated nation, is conferring this honour on Modi not only to show its changing face, but also to signal its readiness to cooperate in the area of anti-radicalisation.
Mridul Kumar, joint secretary (Gulf), who briefed media about the PM's two-day visit to Saudi Arabia from 2 April at the invitation of King Salman, said the issue of de-radicalisation remains big on India's agenda.
Not known to many in the world, Saudi Arabia runs world's most successful de-radicalisation and rehabilitation programmes for surrendered or arrested Al Qaeda members and terrorists from other groups through religious re-education and psychological counselling.
Besides bilateral engagements, Modi will visit an all-woman IT centre managed by Tata Consultancy Services in Riyadh. The centre provides employment and other avenues of empowerment to Saudi women. It is imparting IT skills and entrepreneurship to 1,000 Saudi women.
Although women account for 60 per cent of graduate population in Saudi Arabia, Saudi laws don't allow them to mingle with unrelated men. All lines, counters, and eating areas are divided to keep men and women apart.
When King Abdullah in 2011 declared appointment of women to the royal advisory council, the Shura, there was outrage from conservatives.
Diplomats having exposure to Saudi traditions believe that allowing a foreign dignitary to visit an all-woman facility and even interacting with them is a rare honour. It also conveys a message that the Gulf country is in the process of transformation.
"This is also the first BPO operation in Saudi Arabia, more so for women. So, it is a very important statement that we will be making there. Prime Minister will also meet with select Saudi business leaders," said Kumar.
Over the years, Saudi Arabia has been in the forefront of cooperation with India on security matters, including putting a stop on money laundering, terrorist financing, narco terrorism etc.
Riyadh has also handed over alleged wanted terrorists such as Fasih Mohammad, Zabiudin Ansari alias Abu Jundal in 2012, Abu Sufiyanin December 2015 and Abdul Aziz alias Gidda in February 2016 to India, reflecting close cooperation in security matters.
Before leaving for Brussels on the first leg of his visit, Prime Minister Modi said India's relationship with Saudi Arabia rests on four key aspects, which include energy, the community, Haj and security cooperation. "We have working arrangements on labour issues. We have ministerial dialogue on energy cooperation," he said.
Saudi Arabia is India's fourth largest trading partner, with exports exceeding $11 billion. It is also one of the biggest suppliers of energy, almost 20 per cent of crude supplies. The country also houses the largest Indian expatriate community of about 2.96 million. They send back over $10 billion in remittances every year.
Another key aspect of India's ties with Saudi Arabia is the annual Haj and Umra pilgrimage. Over 1,34,000 Indians go for Haj pilgrimage every year and almost 3,00,000 pilgrims go for Umra.