The visit of A. K. Antony to Saudi Arabia on February 13-14, 2012 is the first ever visit by an Indian Defence Minister to the Kingdom. The visit was intended to further strengthen the bilateral relationship, the foundation of which was laid by the high level visits by King Abdullah to India in 2006 and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2010. Antony was accompanied by a high level defence delegation which included the Defence Secretary, Vice Chief of Army Staff, Deputy Chief of Naval Staff and an Air Vice Marshal, clearly indicating that strengthening defence ties and broadening defence engagement between the two countries was the principal objective of the visit.
Antony’s visit to Riyadh provides a thrust for India’s defence diplomacy in the Gulf region. India has been engaging with other regional countries like Oman, UAE and Qatar by signing defence cooperation agreements and conducting regular exchanges and high level meetings. Though both Saudi Arabia and India are important countries in their respective regions, defence cooperation between the two has not received adequate attention. It is only in recent years that the two countries have begun to conduct joint naval exercises. Indian ships have visited Saudi Arabia on port calls and India has been providing training to some Saudi defence personnel. During his interactions, Antony also suggested an active role for the Saudi Navy in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, thus indicating the Indian Navy’s desire to work with the Saudi Navy in future.
During the visit, both countries agreed to set up a joint committee to work out a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on defence cooperation, another MoU on cooperation in the field of hydrography, joint military exercises and high level visits, etc. Importantly, the committee would also explore the possibility of cooperation between the defence industries of the two countries. At present there is no formal defence cooperation agreement signed between India and Saudi Arabia. There is no supply of any weapons and equipment nor are there any joint Research and Development (R&D) projects.
Cooperation between the defence industries for joint R&D and production would certainly be beneficial for both countries. But it would take time to fructify as Saudi Arabia imports arms and weapons of high quality and precision from Western countries like USA, UK, France, etc. Indian arms and weapons may not be preferred by the Saudi security forces, as the weapons procured from West would have technical advantages over their Indian counterparts. Despite that, both countries can focus their energy on specific R&D projects of mutual interest. India’s seriousness has been reflected by Antony’s invitation to Saudi Arabian officials to visit India’s defence production facilities, which is a clear departure from the past. That Saudi Arabia is also keen on cooperating in this regard was reflected in its acceptance of the Indian invitation. The delicate political and security situation in the Middle East, Saudi ambition for a regional leadership role and the available oil wealth are some of the major factors that would drive Saudi interest in this sector in future. Thus, it is wise to engage Saudi Arabia in defence production although cooperation in this arena is certainly going to take time. In the meantime, however, India should continue to focus on strengthening existing areas of cooperation such as joint naval exercises, conducting training programmes, holding joint military exercises, etc.
Saudi interest in signing an MoU on cooperation in hydrography stems from the fact that the 13,500 strong Royal Saudi Naval Forces have to further strengthen their power keeping in view the changing security situation in the region. Cooperation with Indian Naval units and training from India on hydrography would strengthen their knowledge and expertise for navigating in deep waters and thus increasing their capabilities in the region. Several Saudi defence personnel have been undergoing training at the National Institute of Hydrography, Goa, and a formal cooperation agreement would help in further deepening these ties.
During his visit Antony reiterated India’s commitment and readiness for cooperation to fight against piracy in the Indian Ocean and has suggested that both the India and Saudi navies should jointly explore practical cooperation in the high seas against the pirates. In the past, both India and Saudi Arabia have been victims of piracy off Somali coast. The safety and security of the SLOCs is directly linked to the trade and commerce of both countries. Active cooperation between the two powers in the high seas would certainly help in deterring the pirates. Though both countries have deployed ships in the Gulf of Aden to check piracy, operational cooperation between the two navies have not been established.
Similarly, terrorism is an important issue on which cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia is crucial. Collaborating with each other in combating terrorism has become necessary keeping in view the transnational nature of terrorist funding, operation and ideology. Antony discussed the issue of terrorism with his Saudi counterpart Prince Salman and both countries have reiterated their pledge to fight the menace together. India is reportedly helping Saudi Arabia set up a jungle warfare college in the country, which is intended to train Saudi security forces fight against al Qaeda operating in the mountainous terrain along the Saudi-Yemeni border.
Saudi Arabia is an important country in the region for India in many respects. The 2010 Riyadh Declaration has been termed as ‘a new era of strategic partnership’ between the two countries. Although ties in the fields of trade and commerce remain strong and India and Saudi Arabia are engaged in identifying issues of mutual political concern, cooperation in the defence sphere has been conspicuously absent. Antony’s visit attempts to fill that gap as both countries have decided to take the first big step by agreeing to form a joint committee to work out the future course of action in this regard.