At a time when US is downsizing its presence in West Asia, India as a distant neighbour has a role to play in ensuring peace, security and stability — vital for over 8.9 mn overseas Indians

A week after INS Sumedha, a naval offshore vessel, birthed at the Abu Dhabi naval base, the Indian Air Force fleet of eight fighters, tankers and transport planes were extended hospitality by the Royal Saudi Air Force for refuelling and interaction with Saudi air warriors. Two days later, on February 28, Indian Navy’s Kalvari class submarine made a port call to Omanese naval Port Salalah, for operational turnaround.

Likewise, Indian armed forces combatants and commanders have been deepening their engagement with the generals and soldiers of other Middle Eastern countries, the abode of around 9 million overseas Indians, during the last few years, though the process started almost four decades ago. In 1993, India first initiated its naval diplomacy with Oman, the first West Asian country to engage in military field with India.

The overnight halt at the Riyadh airbase by the Indian Air Force fighter and transport planes on February 26 added another page to India’s expanding strategic outreach efforts to bring the Arab region politically closer to India. Senior Saudi defence officials welcomed the IAF contingent, which was flying to the UK to join the Cobra Warrior exercise. The fact that the IAF chose to make the halt at a Saudi base, and Saudi officials warmly receiving the IAF warriors indicate the real change in mindset of the country, which has traditionally maintained closer political relations with India’s arch-rival Pakistan, on whose behest Saudi Arabia used to deride India on various pretext.

During the halt, the Indian ambassador in Riyadh and the contingent commander were given an opportunity to interact with base commander of the Royal Saudi Air Force, who wished all the best to the IAF contingent in their mission.

'Scripting History'

Signalling growing defence ties between India and Saudi Arabia, the overnight halt at the Saudi air base has been described by the Indian ambassador to Riyadh, Dr Suhail Ajaz Khan, as “scripting history in India Saudi defence relations". Khan emphasised on the importance of military diplomacy as an important aspect of bilateral relations and the stellar role played by the air warriors in the same. This overnight halt was described as friendly “stopover” where refuelling and maintenance checks were undertaken.

This was not the first occasion for display of such bonhomie between two nations. In August 2021, the two countries held first-ever joint naval exercise called the Al-Mohed Al-Hindi, at the King Abdul Aziz naval base, the headquarters of the Saudi naval eastern fleet. This first-ever naval exercise with a hardline Islamic State signalled India’s wider acceptance in the region. Prior to the naval exercise, the two countries had exchanged the visit of their respective army chiefs during the last three years. In fact, the visit of the then Army Chief General MM Narawane in December 2020 was the first to the West Asian region, which was responded by the first ever visit of the Saudi land forces commander, Lieutenant General Fahd Bin Abdullah Mohammed Al-Mutair, in February 2022, during which the two countries decided to identify new areas of cooperation such as Intelligence sharing, counter terrorism, artificial intelligence and cyber security.

India began its strategic outreach with the West-Asian region way back in 1993, when India and Oman began joint naval exercise called Nasee Al-Bahr (Sea Breeze). The India-Oman defence relationship has now emerged as a key pillar of the strategic partnership between the two countries.

This relationship perhaps inspired other Gulf countries such as the UAE and Qatar, who have also entered into cosy defence ties with India. In fact, India widened this engagement by inviting Egypt President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi as the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations this year. With Egypt also, India has inked defence and military cooperation agreements.