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PM Singh seeks regional cooperation in Saudi visit

RIYADH (Reuters) - Prime Minister Manmohan Singh began the first visit to Saudi Arabia by an Indian leader since 1982 seeking to build economic ties and to enlist the kingdom’s help in improving regional security.

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (2nd L) poses with Saudi business leaders during the Saudi-India Business Forum in Riyadh February 28, 2010. REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed

Saudi Arabia has close ties with Pakistan and has also been cited as a possible mediator in any political settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Some analysts had argued India should build its own relationship with Saudi Arabia, in part to ensure it does not lose out to Pakistan as countries position themselves for an eventual end to the eight-year-old Afghan war.

In an interview with Saudi journalists, Singh said he planned to discuss regional stability, which along with the Afghan war is complicated by a standoff between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

“I propose to review the regional scenario, and discuss how we can work together to address the complex issues at hand,” he said of his talks with King Abdullah.

Junior Foreign Minister Shashi Tharoor said India could seek Saudi support in persuading Pakistan to act against Pakistan-based Islamist militant groups -- adding however that this did not mean looking for Saudi mediation.

“Saudi Arabia of course has a long and close relationship with Pakistan but that makes Saudi Arabia all the more a valuable interlocutor for us,” Tharoor told Indian reporters.

“When we tell them about our experience, Saudi Arabia listens as somebody who is not anyway an enemy of Pakistan but rather as a friend of Pakistan, and therefore I am sure listens with sympathy and concern to a matter of this nature.”

India broke off talks with Pakistan after the November 2008 attack on Mumbai blamed on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba. The top diplomats of the two countries held talks on Thursday but they have yet to resume a formal peace process.

Singh also said India wanted to strengthen energy ties with Saudi Arabia, its biggest supplier of oil. Like China, India is constantly working to secure energy supplies for its growing economy.

“We believe that conditions are ripe for moving beyond a traditional buyer-seller relationship to a comprehensive energy partnership,” he said.

“Indian companies are well-equipped to participate in upstream and downstream oil and gas sector projects in Saudi Arabia,” he told business leaders.

Singh is the first Indian prime minister to visit Saudi Arabia since Indira Gandhi in 1982.

His trip coincides with a renewed focus on regional alliances and rivalries as countries in the region manoeuvre for influence ahead of a 2011 deadline set by U.S. President Barack Obama for starting to draw down troops in Afghanistan.

Sunni Saudi Arabia sees Shiite Iran as its main rival in the region. Analysts say it shares with Pakistan concerns about Indian and Iranian influence in Afghanistan and would be unwilling to mediate in a settlement there unless its own strategic interests are met.

Iran, Russia and India backed the then Northern Alliance against the former Taliban rulers, who while in power from 1996 to 2001 were recognised only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Additional reporting by Krittivas Mukherjee in New Delhi; Writing by Myra MacDonald; Editing by Jon Hemming