Originally Published 2014-06-19 13:21:06 Published on Jun 19, 2014
As major powers like China are deepening their military ties with the Gulf, the need for India to look beyond the imperatives of energy and maritime security is critical to its interests in Oman and the wider Gulf region.
The importance of Indo-Omani relations
"Foreign Minister of Oman, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, was the first foreign dignitary from the West Asian region to visit India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s electoral victory. He also met with his Indian counterpart, Sushma Swaraj, and both leaders reviewed the political, economic, defence, security and people-to-people ties between India and Oman. They discussed the welfare of the seven lakh Indians working in Oman and agreed to convene the India-Oman Joint Commission to boost economic engagement between both States.

The Omani minister’s visit highlights Muscat’s diplomatic efforts in seeking greater cooperation with India, in continuation of their historical socio-economic and security partnership. As major powers like China are deepening their military ties with the Gulf, the need for India to look beyond the imperatives of energy and maritime security is critical to its interests in Oman and the wider Gulf region. Deeper security cooperation would also enable India to maintain a balance-of-power in the Indian Ocean littoral.

Even though India’s engagement with the Gulf region is largely limited to energy and trade related exchanges, India and Oman’s security ties are relatively developed. In 1972, they signed a military protocol wherein Indian Navy personnel were deployed in Oman for three years. The protocol was institutionalised in the immediate aftermath of Oman’s independence from Britain.

Former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sultan Qaboos had signed a MoU on military cooperation in 1985 and joint naval exercises had begun in January 1993. ’Naseem al Bahr’, a biennial joint naval exercise, completed its ninth edition in September 2013 1. Oman also provides berthing facilities to Indian navy warships for anti-piracy operations2 . MoUs on defence cooperation in 2005 and 2006 strengthened the military dimension of this bilateral relationship.

Over the years, a number of high level ministerial exchanges have reviewed and reinforced the bilateral relationship. Former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had visited Oman in 2008 and it was agreed to convert the relationship into a strategic partnership. The visit also resulted in the signing of MoUs on a Joint Investment Fund and manpower development with Oman.

Following a boost in relations, Royal Air Force of Oman (ROFA) and the Indian Air Force (IAF) conducted joint military exercises for the first time in 2009. IAF vice Chief Air Marshal P.K. Barbora stated that "The bilateral exercise would also be cost-effective in terms of benefit realization of operational and tactical preparedness over an unknown mixed terrain of land and desert3 ". ROFA airbases also serve as maintenance and refuelling points for the IAF4 .

Oman’s centrality to India’s energy and maritime security dates back to the 19th and 20th century. The British government in India established New Delhi’s political and security role in Oman through the appointment of a Political Agent in Muscat to manage British India’s relations and protect ships in the Arabian Sea. As a protector of the Gulf Sheikhdoms, the British Raj assumed responsibility for the foreign affairs and defence of Oman (and the Gulf Sheikhdoms) in the 19th century.

The Government of Bombay established a Persian Gulf Squadron in 1821 to enforce the General Treaty - anti-piracy treaty - using about 7 ships-of-war and 4 gunboats to patrol the Arabian waters. The Sultan of Muscat was also the first Gulf ruler to be extended the protection of the Gulf squadron5 . Post-independence, India signed a Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation (1953) with Oman, which segregated Indo-Oman relations from the British Political Agent in Muscat6 .

Since its independence, Oman has followed a foreign policy largely autonomous from the Gulf Cooperation Council member States. In 2013, Sultan Qaboos facilitated secret nuclear negotiations between Iran and the US and rejected Saudi Arabia’s attempts to create a politically and militarily integrated GCC Union. Oman was also the first Arab nation to export oil to China in 1983.

Over the years, Muscat and Beijing have expanded their military relations, which include joint anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Chinese naval vessels dock at the Port of Salalah in Oman for replenishment. Oman’s Defence Minister, Ayyiid Badr al-Busaidi,announced in 2010 that "his military would continue to provide the Chinese naval fleet with supplies if necessary"7 .

Oman’s initiatives to strengthen cooperation with India can, hence, be seen as part of its efforts to diversify its security partnerships. Muscat’s ministerial visit to New Delhi, weeks after the new Indian government took charge, is suggestive of India’s centrality in the Gulf’s strategic calculus. The Gulf, however, is not included in Prime Minister Modi’s "crowded...outbound travel inbox" for the next six months.

Even though the region is extremely critical to India’s core interests of energy and economics, it has not featured sufficiently in New Delhi’s strategic policies. China’s strengthening maritime position and political interaction with the region also necessitate greater defence participation from India in the Gulf.

(The writer is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

  1.    "Naseem Al Bahr: Naval exercise between India and Oman held", Indian Navy http://indiannavy.nic.in/press-release/naseem-al-bahr-naval-exercise-between-indian-oman-navy-held

  2.    "Indian Ambassador, IAF Observer and Commander RAFO visit IAF contingent at Oman", Press Information Bureau, Government of India, October 28, 2009 http://pib.nic.in/newsite/erelease.aspx?relid=53650

  3.    "IAF preparing to join anti-piracy operations in Gulf", Times Now, October 14, 2009 http://www.timesnow.tv/articleshow/msid-4329682,prtpage-1.cms

  4.    ’India Strengthens Military in Gulf’, Saurav Jha, UPI Asia, November 3, 2009

  5.    James Onley, "Britain and the Gulf Sheikhdoms: 1820-1971 - the politics of protection", Centre for International and Regional Studies, Georgetown University, 2009

  6.    Joseph A. Kechichian, "Oman and the World: the emergence of an independent foreign policy", RAND Corporation, 1995

  7.    Chinese, Omani defence chiefs discuss stronger ties, anti piracy operations, Ministry of national defence, The People’s Republic of China, June 4, 2010 http://eng.mod.gov.cn/TopNews/2010-06/04/content_4162477.htm

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