New and fast-paced emerging security and regional order, along with the growing geostrategic importance of the Indo-Pacific, have brought the GCC states and India together on the same stage.
While India′s relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar has been primarily based on trade and commerce, a spate of recent defence and security agreements have brought the bloc closer to New Delhi's strategic focus than ever. The emerging security and regional order, along with the growing geostrategic importance of the Indo-Pacific, have brought the GCC states and India together on the same stage - moving to a new realm of bilateral relations that looks beyond trade and business to mutually deepen political, security and strategic engagements.
India and Saudi Arabia first signed a MoU on defence cooperation in 2014. That momentum was amplified during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Riyadh in April 2016 and Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman's visit to New Delhi in February 2019. As per the MoU, India and Saudi Arabia have formed a Joint Committee on Defence Cooperation (JCDC), and as a step towards boosting military ties, both nations agreed to training officers from the Royal Saudi Armed Forces at Indian defence training institutes. In December 2017, the first group of Saudi cadets joined the three-year training course at the National Defence Academy in Pune.
Those unprecedented defence collaborations were further reinforced in February 2019, when New Delhi and Riyadh “agreed to cooperate and collaborate in joint defence production of spare parts for Naval and Land systems as well as supply chain development.”
With maritime security considered one of the most significant aspects of defence cooperation, the two side have agreed to “work together with other Indian Ocean Rim Countries” to ensure security in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. The Indian navy and coast guards hold regular interactions with their counterpart and Indian Naval Ships regularly undertake port calls to Saudi Arabia.
According to Dr Mohd Muddassir Quamar, Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, both India and Saudi Arabia have strengthened cooperation in the security and defense sectors and the two are in constant discussions to improving defense cooperation and investments in India's defence manufacturing sector.
While India's Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba visited the kingdom in 2018, it is the recent historic visit of the Indian Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane which has raised the level and quality of bilateral defence interaction.
Gen Naravane becomes the first ever head of the Indian military to visit Saudi Arabia. In a statement, the Indian army said that its chief will assume the "excellent defence cooperation between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and India through multiple meetings with senior functionaries of security establishment and exchange views on various defence related issues."
But Saudi Arabia was not the only country on the radar of Gen Naravane.
He also visited the UAE as part of the 6-day tour of the Gulf - and in Abu Dhabi met Commander of the UAE′s Land Forces and Staff Major General Saleh Mohammed Saleh Al Ameri to discuss key issues of mutual interest and defence cooperation. According to the Indian Army, Gen. Naravane also received a Guard of Honour at the headquarters of the UAE′s Land Forces and laid a wreath at the Martyr′s Memorial during his visit.
The visit assumes cirtical significance in light of fast-paced developments in the Gulf - and the fact that India sees the UAE as a growing defence market, providing opportunities for collaboration.
According to Derek Bisaccio, an analyst at US-based Forecast International Inc., the UAE has signed defense cooperation agreements with India to deepen their ties and at an IDEX military exhibition in the UAE, Indian Ordnance Factories signed a deal to supply ammunition to the Emirati military.
In 2018, a defence delegation led by UAE Minister of State for Defence Affairs, Mohammed Ahmed Al Bowardi, had expressed interest in buying `Made in India' Akash surface-to-air missile system, besides expressing interest in the world's fastest anti-ship cruise missile, BrahMos - which is an Indo-Russian joint venture. The UAE has also expressed interest in India's indigenous Astra 70-kilometer range air- to-air missile, which can be fitted on Mirage combat aircraft which are in service in the UAE Air Force. Further, the Abu Dhabi-based Caracal International has been declared as L1 for the procurement of Indian Army's Close Quarter Carbines.
India's tactical defence relations with the UAE's next-door neighbor Oman is meanwhile one of the most enduring in the Arabian peninsula. Often dubbed the Switzerland of the Middle East, Oman has typically pursued a moderate foreign policy in the region.
“Defence cooperation between Oman and India goes back by decades. Given that both Oman and India border the Arabian Sea, the two have developed ties between their Navies, in particular,” said Derek Bisaccio, an analyst at the US-based Forecast International Inc. “Navies of India and Oman have been conducting joint naval exercises since 2017 and recently concluded the Al Nagah exercises involving land forces from the two countries,” he said.
Being India's oldest defence partner in the Middle East, Oman has provided New Delhi access to the Port of Duqm, which India can use for military purpose and logistical support - greatly facilitating India's expansion of presence in the Indian Ocean Region.
From munitions and armoured vehicles to sharing of intelligence and more, India's robust defence relation with the Gulf is thus ready to embrace a bright new future.