‘India’s outreach to West Asia’
- Posted By
8th Dec, 2020
Indian Army chief Manoj Mukund Naravane is on his four-day visit to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The visit is being seen as a testimony to New Delhi’s commitment to warming ties between India and the Gulf countries.
- This visit comes on the heels of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s trips to Bahrain and the UAE, and upcoming trips by India’s top diplomatsto Qatar, Kuwait and Oman.
- This trip highlights the increasing strategic cooperation between the two sides across the Arabian Sea.
- Naravane’s scheduleincludes stopovers in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and giving a talk at Saudi Arabia’s National Defence University.
- The visit comes as a boost to the already aggressive diplomacy New Delhi has orchestrated in West Asia (Middle East), particularly with the Gulf, over the past few years.
- In October 2019, both India and Saudi Arabia had announced their first joint naval drills to take place in March 2020.
- In March 2018, India and the UAE conducted their maiden naval exercise titled ‘Gulf Star 1’ as an expansion of the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries.
What kind of defence cooperation is there between India and the Gulf?
- Defence cooperation between India and the Gulf is an avenue that has had to be built almost from scratch.
- Though, historically, India has not exactly been absent from the region’s geopolitical and defence environment.
- Between 1958 and 1989, India trainedIraqi air force cadets in Tikrit both in operations and in tactical attack training (via deputation of Pilot Attack Instructors (PAI)) on the MiG aircraft variants, of which India still operates a significant number.
- While, of course, the India – Iraq bonhomie during the era of Saddam Hussein was much more aligned towards India’s narrow interest yet critical requirement of oil supplies.
- Today the ideation of cooperation with the Gulf is that of economic power in Asia and a growing strategic partner in global affairs, and not just a transactional state is known to provide cheap labour and an oil market.
What is current India’s defence outreach to the Gulf?
- The defence cooperation is a mesh of both the legacy issues between the sub-continent and the Gulf and new geopolitical and geoeconomics realities.
- Today, the depth of engagement is significant due to a variety of microcosms within the realities of a fast-changing global polity.
- Most of India’s defence outreach to the Gulf recently has been led by the Navy, with high-level visits by the service peppered across 2017, 2018 and 2019.
- Earlier in 2015, a contingent of the Indian Air Force which included Sukhoi 30MKI fighters, C-17 and C-130J transport aircraft, IL-78 tankers and 110 personnel conducted the first staging visitat Saudi’s King Fahd airbase in Taif while on route to the United Kingdom.
- The same year, then IAF chief Arup Raha had visitedUAE and Oman and in 2016 the air forces of India and the UAE conducted bilateral exercises.
- These institutions have since developed over the years at a steady pace.
What is the significance of the Indian Army chief’s visit to the Gulf?
- Normalization of ties: The aim of this visit is to normalise the relations of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan with Israel and Iran's efforts to position itself as a key player in Western Asia. India has welcomed the normalisation of ties between Arab states, saying that such steps are in line with its efforts to support peace and development in Western Asia.
- A new start: Naravane’s visit is significant as it is the first such visit by the chief of the Indian Army.
- New avenues of defence cooperation: It will open a new avenue of defence cooperation, specifically when it comes to joint exercises and training in land warfare, particularly with regard to closer cooperation on issues such as counterterrorism.
- This could now become easier and more ingrained with the signing of the Abraham Accordsbetween the UAE, Bahrain and Israel and with the Saudis also acknowledging the deal, albeit in a limited manner.
Will this visit place Indian indigenous weapon systems into highlights?
- Reports around Gen. Naravane’s visit already have highlighted a potential sale of the BrahMos missile systemthat has been jointly developed by India and Russia with both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh showing interest.
- Other systems such as the in-development Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS)and other similar projects are seen as having considerable potential as export success stories, with the Gulf as a lucrative market.
- This opening in the Gulf for defence equipment can place Indian indigenous weapon systems not only for sale but also offer joint-development schemes where the likes of Saudi and UAE can team up with Indian enterprise, both public and private sector, to develop weapons not only for consumption but for export as well.
- This can be done on the same model as India, UAE and Saudi have been working in the field of energy security.
What has led to this visit?
It is important to examine the recent changes that have occurred that have to lead to this visit.
- The foremost being the snub given by Saudi Arabia to Pakistan recently when General Qamar Javed Bajwa accompanied by the Director-General ISI was denied an audience by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salaman when he rushed to Riyadh in August to control damaging Pakistan – Saudi ties.
- These ties started deteriorating with Pakistan’s refusal to join a Saudi- UAE coalition in Yemen and an upswing in their ties with Turkey and Malaysia.
- The next of course is the recent breakthrough in ties between Israel and UAE and the signs of a similar trajectory in ties with Saudi Arabia.
- Simultaneously, China is getting closer to Iran much to the discomfort of other countries in the region and even though one of the reasons for the Chinese intrusions was the apprehension in China that India was seeming to align with the US, the actions of China only accelerated a push in that direction which resulted in the recent Exercise Malabar and is now being reflected in this significant visit.
What should be the ‘focus-areas’ of the visit?
- To shield India’s interests in the post-pandemic turbulence: There is the immediate need to shield India’s interests in the post-pandemic turbulence that is enveloping the region.
- The Gulf considers cutting back on foreign labour, Delhi would want to make sure its workers in the region are insulated.
- To focus on new avenues of economic cooperation: India needs to focus on the new and long-term possibilities for economic cooperation with the Gulf, which is looking at a future beyond oil.
- To broader the political narrative: The Gulf’s financial power is increasingly translating into political influence and the ability to shape the broader political narrative in the Middle East.
- To strengthen regional initiatives on connectivity and security: India needs to bring scale and depth to its regional initiatives on connectivity and security in the Indian Ocean. There is a growing ability of the Gulf to influence regional conflicts from Afghanistan to Lebanon and from Libya to Somalia. The Gulf today delivers economic and security assistance to friendly states, builds ports and infrastructure, acquires military bases and brokers peace between warring parties and states.
- To pay sufficient focus to reforms: Delhi pays insufficient attention to the significant reforms unfolding in the Gulf that seek to reduce the heavy hand of religion on social life, expand the rights of women, widen religious freedoms, promote tolerance, and develop a national identity that is not tied exclusively to religion.
Is there any other development behind the ambit of defence cooperation?
- Beyond the ambit of defence cooperation, New Delhi is also using its closeness to the Gulf block for multi-layered geopolitical reasons.
- India is using the fissures developed between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to bolster its case as a long-term partner in heir apparent Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) bid to open up the Saudi economy and society, allowing India to promote its position on issues such as Kashmir more successfully within the Muslim world.
- India hosted MbS in February 2019, where he received all the frills that a head of state does.
- This was a time when the Crown Prince was embroiled in the case of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggidue to which most Western capitals were not keen on welcoming him.
- New Delhi took this challenge as an opportunity.
Why ‘West’ assumes significance for India?
- Six West Asian countries - UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain - accounted for nearly 70% of all Indians who live abroad.
- UAE is home to the largest number of Indians, 3.4 million, which was approximately a quarter of all NRIs around the world.
- Another 2.6 million were in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain were home to another 2.9 million NRIs.
- Between them, they sent home nearly half of India’s total foreign remittances of US 80 billion.
- West Asia especially the Gulf is strategically most important for India’s overall security spectrum including energy and Diaspora security.
- West Asia is an integral part of India’s Indo-Pacific maritime domain hence mutually beneficial areas of cooperation.
- However, more significantly, India is also in a good space to cash in from the likes of Saudi and UAE getting more comfortable in taking control of their security and hedging an over-reliance on the US-provided security blanket.
- This is highlighted by examples such as the UAE opting to go for Chinese drones for military use when the US refused to sell them the MQ-9 ‘Reaper’ drones, showcasing that Abu Dhabi was willing to source defence requirements from others if its security needs are not met from its traditional suppliers.
Important exchanges between the top leaderships
- In August 2015, Prime Minister Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the UAE, which he visited again in 2018 and 2019.
- During his last visit, he received the Order of Zayed, the UAE's highest civil decoration, in recognition of his role in improving ties between the two countries.
- Three years prior, he received the King Abdulaziz Sash Award of Saudi Arabia and the 'King Hamad Order of the Renaissance', the third-highest civilian order of Bahrain in 2019.
- Prime Minister Modi has had a calibrated approach to the Gulf region's powers with high-profile visits to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Iran and Bahrain, which were followed by Gulf dignitaries visit New Delhi.
- When one of the most revered leaders of the region His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the Emir of Kuwait, passed away in September, the Indian Government declared a day's state mourning throughout the country—a gesture that was much appreciated in Kuwait.
This personal touch between the top leaderships paid a rich dividend in the crisis that ensued globally after the COVID-19 disease became a pandemic.
Though energy has been the foundation of India and Gulf countries ties, there has been a remarkable shift in the relationship lately and the visit of the Chief, and focus on counter-terrorism and security is only reflective of maturing of our relationship and elevated role in this region. However, the pandemic has only worsened economic outlook, exacerbated India’s problem of reverse migration and impacted Gulf sovereign wealth funds. In this climate, what India can do is focus on fast-tracking existing projects and re-engage with purpose in strategic sectors like healthcare, nuclear and space cooperation.