Even though India has little to offer in comparison to other countries in terms of defence technology, it can aspire to become a hub for cooperative development of intra-regional defense technologies.
The maiden visit to India by the Chief of Saudi Arabia Land Forces, Commander Lt. Gen. Fahd Bin Abdullah Mohammed Al Mutair, has pushed defense relations between the two countries beyond one that has been largely defined by cooperation on the high seas between the navies. The visit has been another highlight in India’s expanding strategic outreach to the Gulf, with the recently concluded Comprehensive Partnership Economic Agreement (CEPA) with the UAE, a close ally of Riyadh, setting a developing cooperation standard between the two regions.
India’s steady expansion on matters of defense with Riyadh comes side by side to diplomacy between the two states taking center stage.
Lt Gen Al Mutair’s visit comes on the heels of a visit to the Gulf in December 2020 by Chief of the Indian Army, General MM Naravane, which was followed by the first joint naval exercise between the two countries in August 2021. During this visit, New Delhi and Riyadh agreed to expand on defense cooperation including in the fields of procurements and exploring defense industrial collaborations. To add to the subtleties of diplomacy, the fact that Lt. Gen. Al Mutair and Gen. Naravane publicly released photographs of the visit with the mural in the backdrop showcasing the moment when Pakistan signed the instrument of surrender in Dhaka as the 1971 war ended in Pakistan’s defeat, leading to the liberation of what is now Bangladesh was not an issue for the Saudis showcases the changes that have taken place in the recent past, and that Pakistan’s influence in the Gulf capitals over the question of India and Kashmir has its limitations.
India’s steady expansion on matters of defense with Riyadh comes side by side to diplomacy between the two states taking center stage. For New Delhi, these strategic and tactical manoeuvres alike come at a time when the traditional constructs of security in the West Asian (Middle East) region are being remolded around a relatively more ambivalent US, an increasingly visible China, and perhaps most importantly, a significant recalibration of strategic stakes amongst the three poles of power in the region, that is Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel. The signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020 brought a back-room collaboration between a section of the Arab world and Israel out in the open. While this consolidation of power has come forward due to a common interest to counter Iran’s regional power ambitions, its realisation was also pushed through by the views of former President Donald Trump, who wanted the US to retreat from its traditional role as a global security supplier. The wake of this discourse is still being felt across the region, as policymakers and scholars alike attempt to decipher a prevailing view of American power in ‘retrenchment’ in the Middle East and what, as former diplomat Martin Indyk has asked, a ‘post-American’ Middle East would look like. Perhaps scholars Amos Yadlin and Assaf Orion have best described American confusion over its own role as a superpower in traditional bastions of influence, such as the Middle East, as being “absent without leaving”, adding that while the American presence is still unquestionable, its willingness to use force is “limited and diminishing”.
The wake of this discourse is still being felt across the region, as policymakers and scholars alike attempt to decipher a prevailing view of American power in ‘retrenchment’ in the Middle East and what, as former diplomat Martin Indyk has asked, a ‘post-American’ Middle East would look like.
It is imperative to see India’s increasing defense ties with the Gulf in alignment with these fundamental shifts of the region’s security construct. These shifts in the Middle East are taking place as threat perceptions remain consistent. The waterways of the Persian Gulf have come under consistent strain, as a response to which New Delhi orchestrated Operation Sankalp in 2021 where Indian Navy vessels were tasked to provide safe-passage to Indian-flagged merchant vessels as US–Iran tensions escalated. As per reports, Indian warships guided more than 16 vessels a day safely through that geography, one that is critical to India’s energy security as a net importer of oil and gas. Other Asian importers, such as South Korea and China, have also committed towards similar deployments. The uncertainty of the US security blanket in the Middle East has only exacerbated further since the fallout in Afghanistan in August 2021. These events have forced the hands of those that operated under these blankets to re-work their strategic outlook, and this includes India. The US blanket also had one more significant, yet not very debated, outcome that of promoting a more moderate and globalist line of thought within Islamic politics of the region. Shades of this have been visible in both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as the latter looks to integrate more firmly into the global economy through a reformist agenda that has also targeted religion’s traditional roles in society and politics. It, of course, remains to be seen on how effective these reforms will be in the long run.
On the bilateral front, Saudi Arabia’s moves towards opening its economy to global investment offers many opportunities for India, especially in the defense technologies sector led by private firms. As Riyadh looks to transition away from its economic dependency on oil, it still requires Asian economies and their voracious appetite for hydrocarbons to navigate this transition. The recent CEPA with the UAE, for example, offers 140,000 visas for highly skilled workers from India, and similar understandings between India and Saudi Arabia can help in creating a technology and defense-tech highway between the two as well. There is no denying here, however, that the contest is immense. The Gulf has largely relied on the West for its weapons, and even though countries like Egypt have bought MiG 29 fighter jets from Russia and the UAE has bought and operated Wing Loong UAVs from China, India’s offerings remain very limited. While both UAE and Saudi Arabia have reportedly shown interest in the joint Indo-Russian BrahMos missile system, not much headway has been made on this front and experts remain sceptical of any potential sale due to Moscow’s involvement. A recent deal for carbine guns between India and the UAE has also fallen through, with New Delhi’s call for ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’ gaining strength after the border crisis with China in Ladakh, which began in 2020.
Indian warships guided more than 16 vessels a day safely through that geography, one that is critical to India’s energy security as a net importer of oil and gas.
For now, India’s expansion on defense cooperation with the Gulf is, and should, be concentrated on securing interests specifically in the realm of trade, energy security, and demography. India’s indigenous defense technology, as of today, has little in its arsenal to counter the options that the Gulf countries have, or to break any monopoly of western, or even Russian and Chinese alternatives. Nonetheless, while expansive cooperation in defense technology and manufacturing is a good aspiration to hold, the current trajectory that of securing immediate interests is the foundation for much of this strategic outreach. India broadly should extend its support to the Gulf to build its own protective and sustainable security architecture for the future, where the region does not have to bank on ideas such as ‘security umbrellas’ designed by third parties. To this end, India’s economy and market is ideally placed to offer itself as a hub for cooperative development of an intra-regional defense technologies hub that will benefit countries like Saudi Arabia as they move forward with their reformist aims.
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Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...Read More +