|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
The recent six-day visit of General M.M. Naravane to the UAE and Saudi Arabia beginning December 9, 2020, was a landmark in further boosting India’s relations with these two countries. Ahead of his visit, the Army issued a statement saying, “During the visit, he will be meeting his counterparts and senior military leadership in these countries. The visit is historic in the sense that it be the first time an Indian Army Chief is visiting the UAE and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Naravane’s visit was in the wake of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s trips to Bahrain and the UAE, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s telephonic conversation Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thanl on December 8 including decision for setting up a special task force to further facilitate Qatari investments in India, and upcoming visits of V. Muraleedharan, Minister of State, Ministry of External Affairs to Oman and other Indian diplomatic visits to Qatar and Oman. This is a time when Pakistan is dumping Saudi Arabia on behest of China to promote Turkey in the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), UAE and Bahrain have recognised Israel and Pakistan PM Imran Khan is stitching radical links with Turkey and Malaysia.
In UAE, General Naravane received a Guard of Honour at the headquarters of the UAE’s Land Forces and laid a wreath at the Martyr’s Point. Later, General Naravane discussed bilateral defence cooperation and issues of mutual interest with Major General Saleh Mohammed Saleh Al Ameri, Commander of UAE’s Land Forces. A Press Trust of India release stated that the Army Chief’s visit to the UAE aims to further strengthen bilateral defence cooperation and is seen as a reflection of India’s growing strategic ties with the two countries and is expected to further open up new avenues for cooperation in the defence and security sphere. Sometime back UAE had curtailed giving worker visas to Pakistanis because of security concerns and last month suspended issue of visitor visas to Pakistanis along with another dozen countries.
Arriving in Saudi Arabia in the second leg of his tour, General Naravane was given a Guard of Honour at the headquarters of Royal Saudi Land Forces. He discussed issues of bilateral defence cooperation with General Fahd Bin Abdullah Mohammed Al-Mutir, Commander of Saudi Land Forces. He also called on General Fayyadh bin Hamid Al-Ruwali, Chief of General Staff and discussed issues of mutual interest and means of enhancing bilateral defence cooperation. Subsequently, General Naravane also interacted with Lieutenant General Mutlaq bin Al-Azima, Commander of Joint Forces of Saudi Arabia to exchange views on defence cooperation. On December 14, General Naravane visited King Abdul Aziz Military Academy and exchanged views on military training. He also visited Saudi Armed Forces Command and Staff College and National Defence University, where he addressed the Faculty and student officers attending the War Course.
General Naravane’s visit will boost defence cooperation and strategic ties of India with UAE and Saudi Arabia. According media reports both countries have shown interest in the BrahMos missile. The UAE-based Caracal has also offered its CAR 816 close quarter battle (CQB) Carbines to be manufactured under ‘Make in India’ with transfer of technology (ToT) after it had won a contract in 2018 to supply these weapons to the Indian Army.
In 2015, Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha had visited UAE and Oman. In 2016 the Indian Air Force and the United Arab Emirates Air Force (UAEAF) conducted a 10-day bilateral combat exercise ‘Desert Eagle II’ from May 24 to June 3 at Al-Dhafra Air Base, UAE. In March 2018, India and the UAE conducted their first joint naval exercise ‘Gulf Star 1’ from March 17 to 22. Two ships of the Indian Navy, INS Gomati (Guided Missile Frigate) and INS Kolkata (Guided Missile Destroyer) first arrived at Port Zayed, Abu Dhabi on March 17 for the Harbour phase of the Exercise ‘Gulf Star 1’ and later participated with UAEN ships for the Sea phase commencing March 20. India and the UAE have an agreement on defence cooperation which was renewed in 2014. This provides a general framework for strengthening bilateral defence ties.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited India in February 2019. The main aim of his visit was to improve the historical ties between the two countries. Both sides agreed to increase bilateral trade relations. The Crown Prince expected that the Saudi investment in India may reach $100 billion in the next two years. The number of Indian pilgrims performing Hajj in Saudi Arabia has been increased to 2,00,000 every year. In 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited Saudi Arabia, his main agenda being energy, security, and well-being of the Indian Diaspora. Modi was the first Indian conferred with Saudi Arabia’s highest civilian honour – ‘The Collar of the Order of Abdulaziz Al Saud’. In October 2019, both India and Saudi Arabia had announced their first joint naval drills to take place in early March 2020. However, this was perhaps postponed because of the pandemic.
The Gulf is important to India not only for defence cooperation but also two-way trade and from the point of view of investments in India. The old thinking that India needs massive investments and China has the capacity to make most investments should be kicked out of the window. China anyway is a country that markets fake gold. Moreover, China’s state-owned companies have defaulted on their debts with a record $6.1 billion in bonds in period January-October 2020 according to Fitch Ratings. So the credibility of Chinese government guarantees is becoming hollow. The Gulf has the capacity to invest in all sectors. India’s defence exports can also look up through BrahMos and other weapon platforms especially under ‘Make in India’ with Saudi Arabia being the largest defence importer in the world. Space cooperation is another area where ISRO can help advance strategic ties. A balance needs to be maintained against countries with radical agendas like Pakistan and Turkey trying to hijack the geodynamics of the region.