India and Saudi Arabia have increased defence and security cooperation in the fields of combating terrorism, maritime security and defence manufacturing.
India has historically shared friendly relations with the Arab world. Trade and people-to-people contacts have persevered between the Indian Subcontinent and the Arabian Peninsula since time immemorial. This has resulted in strong cultural affinity between the two geographies set apart only by the Arabian Sea.
During the colonial period, British dependencies in the Arab Gulf were administered from India. As a consequence of which Bombay emerged as the com
mercial and political nerve centre of the British Empire in the East, thereby attracting many prominent Arab mercantile and trading families to visit and set base in the city. This friendship and political connection remained alive during the Indian national movement for independence as well, and the leaders of the Indian freedom struggle also extended their support to the Arab national movement for an independent Palestine. This support for Arab nationalism and the right to self-determination of the Arabs in all parts of West Asia, in
cluding occupied Palestine, continued after independence, with India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru maintaining close friendly ties with the Arab leaders as a start.
Growth of Bilateral Relations
India’s political and diplomatic contacts with Saudi Arabia were established soon after her independence, when the country started functioning its consulate in Jeddah to facilitate Haj for Indian pilgrims. In 1955-56, the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and King Saud bin Abdulaziz al-Saud exchanged visits and declared the significance attached to this bilateral relation. Diplomatic and political contacts were maintained, leading to the visit of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to Riyadh in 1982. The situation started to take a new turn after the end of Cold War, as India adopted liberal economic policies, and gradually its need for energy began to increase. Saudi Arabia, like other oil-rich Arab Gulf countries, provided India with the much needed energy security, leading to the establishment of a new phase of bilateral relations based on trade and energy ties. The burgeoning trade ties got a boost in 2006, when India invited King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud as the chief guest for the Republic Day celebrations that year. During this visit, the King emphasised the deep historical and cultural connect between the two peoples, and articulated the need for the further strengthening of bilateral ties. This led to the signing of the Delhi Declaration, laying the foundations for future cooperation in areas of mutual interest. This visit was reciprocated by the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2010, when he was given the privilege of addressing the Saudi Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council). Mr Singh expressed India’s keenness to continue strengthening bilateral ties in areas of mutual interest, including trade, commerce and energy, as well as defence and security cooperation. The two sides signed the Riyadh declaration promising to start “a new era of Strategic Partnership.”
Bilateral relations have since been focused on trade, energy imports, investments and security cooperation, and have seen an surge since the coming to power of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2014. Prime Minister Modi’s approach to foreign policy focussed on improving external trade and bringing global investments to India, and this has led him to put special focus on the Arab Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia.
In April 2016, the Prime Minister visited the Kingdom and was warmly welcomed by the King Salman, who honoured him with the highest civilian award – the King Abdulaziz Sash. During discussions between the top leadership, the two sides agreed to work towards furthering bilateral ties in areas of mutual interest. Trade, energy imports and two-way flow of investments emerged as priority areas and the two sides expressed satisfaction with the current state of bilateral trade. They “agreed to transform the buyer-seller relationship in the energy-sector to one of deeper partnership focusing on investment and joint ventures in petrochemical complexes, and cooperation in joint exploration in India, Saudi Arabia and in third countries.”
Prime Minister Modi’s national security advisor Mr Ajit Doval and his special envoy on counter-terrorism Asif Ibrahim, have been active in pursuing defence cooperation with Saudi Arabia. Weeks before the Prime Minister’s visit in 2014, Mr Doval visited Riyadh and undertook discussions with the then Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud for charting ways to strengthen defence ties. Issues related to combating radicalism and counter-terrorism were discussed during Prime Minister Modi’s visit in 2014. India and Saudi Arabia agreed to enhance security and defence cooperation to prevent the spread of radicalism and to counter terrorism in both South Asia and the Gulf region. Both sides appreciated the signing of the MoU on Defence Cooperation in February 2014 and termed it as “an important milestone in strengthening the Strategic Partnership between the two countries.” Prime Minister Modi and King Salman agreed to further “intensify bilateral defence cooperation, through exchange of visits by military personnel and experts, conduction of joint military exercises, exchange of visits of ships and aircrafts and supply of arms and ammunition and their joint development.” Moreover, the “two leaders agreed to enhance cooperation to strengthen maritime security in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean regions, vital for the security and prosperity of both countries” and “expressed strong condemnation of the phenomenon of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, irrespective of who the perpetrators were and of their motivations.” A significant aspect of the growing security cooperation is the need to combat the spread of radical ideas. The rise of radical ideas and its ability to use technology and the digital medium to attract vulnerable youths raised alarm bells throughout the world.
India reached out to the Gulf countries to strengthen security cooperation in preventing the spread of radical terrorism, and found willing partners in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Terrorism has emerged as the scourge of the 21st century, and both India and Saudi Arabia have been victim to the terror and face significant terrorist threats. This has made them strengthen their mutual cooperation for counter-terrorism.
India and Saudi Arabia have been gradually enhancing bilateral security cooperation since the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Intelligence sharing, port calls of naval ships and coastal security were areas that came to the forefront during the early phase, and this was strengthened by the visits of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in February-March 2010 and the then Crown Prince and Defence Minister Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in February 2014. The signing of MoU on defence cooperation paved the way for more engagement between the two militaries. And as underlined earlier, the Modi-Salman joint statement highlighted the growing the convergence of interests between India and Saudi Arabia on security issues.
Similarly, cooperation for the prevention of organised crime and terror-financing through hawala transactions are part of the burgeoning security ties. India and Saudi Arabia signed an extradition treaty in 2010 and since then a number of wanted criminals and terror suspects have been extradited by Saudi authorities to India. Simultaneously, cyber security to prevent cybercrimes and possible terror strikes on crucial cyber networks have emerged as a priority area for security cooperation.
Maritime security is another area where India and Saudi Arabia have enhanced cooperation over the past few years. Security in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf is of utmost importance to both, making them invest significant amount of resources in ensuring the security of international waters. A vital portion of economic engagement is conducted through maritime trade, and any minor disruption of the sea lanes of communication can cause serious trade and commercial losses to all countries involved. Therefore, maritime security has emerged as a top priority. This issue was discussed in detail during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2014. Furthermore, to continue close cooperation, in May 2017, Indian Naval Ships Mumbai, Trishul and Aditya made a port call at Jeddah. In February 2018, India’s Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Sunil Lamba visited Saudi Arabia to intensify maritime security cooperation and coordination between the Indian Navy and the Royal Saudi Navy. As part of the plan to enhance maritime security cooperation, the Indian and Saudi Coast Guards too are increasing bilateral engagement. In November 2017, the Indian Coast Guard Ship (ICGS) SAMARTH visited the Jubail Port in Saudi Arabia.
Military-to-military ties too are on the agenda of bilateral ties. In November 2017, the third meeting of Joint Committee on Defence Cooperation (JCDC) was held in New Delhi. The JDC was attended by a 12-member Saudi delegation led by the Chief of Operations, the Saudi Armed Forces. The Indian side was led by the Joint Secretary (PIC), Ministry of Defence, and the meeting identified “credible activities” to bolster military-to-military cooperation. As a follow-up, a delegation level visit from Saudi Armed Forces Command and Staff College took place in January 2018. The JDC also approved the proposal for training officers from the Royal Saudi Armed Forces at Indian defence training institutes. Accordingly, the Ministry of Defence gave consent for giving five vacancies to Saudi officers at the National Defence Academy, Pune, as a continuing process. The first group of Saudi cadets joined the three-year training course in December 2017. Moreover, proposals on joint exercises and more interactions through delegation level visits are at the early stages of discussion.
Another significant area for cooperation could be defence manufacturing. In fact, India and Saudi Arabia are the two top global importers of defence equipment and weapons, and the leadership of both nations have recognised the need for developing an indigenous defence industry. India’s Make in India and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 programmes have put significant emphasis on developing the local defence industry. As an initial step, both have incorporated clauses for local manufacturing of equipment and assembly units for international weapons and defence equipment import deals. Both have recognised security as a common area of interest, and in the future, India-Saudi defence cooperation is expected to expand even further.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.