Indian Army chief Gen MM Naravane’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) signals New Delhi’s intention to boost security cooperation amid the rapidly changing scenario in West Asia, experts and former diplomats said on Friday.
The army chief is set to make a four-day visit to the two key West Asian powers from December 6 against the backdrop of the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan normalising relations with Israel. Commentators said this is possibly the first visit to Saudi Arabia by an Indian Army chief.
India has welcomed the normalisation of ties between Arab states such as the UAE and Israel, saying such moves are in line with its efforts to back peace and development in West Asia, which is part of the country’s “extended neighbourhood”.
Zikrur Rahman, a former envoy to Palestine who also served several stints in Saudi Arabia, described the upcoming visit as a “good beginning” that signals India’s desire to upgrade the security relationship with both West Asian states. It is in line with the decision by India and Saudi Arabia during Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit last year to create a strategic partnership council to monitor ties.
“The Saudis are now acting to boost their own national interests and the visit will be an opportunity for India to convey our own narrative on matters such as the border situation with China. It could even help to ensure that China is sidelined,” Rahman said, referring to the Saudi leadership’s openness to economic ties with China.
“The West was never in favour of ties with China and Saudi Arabia has remained in that bloc. Besides, this trip will allow India to focus on defence cooperation and ways to strengthen matters such as intelligence-sharing,” he said.
Both Rahman and Sameer Patil, fellow for international security studies at Gateway House, said the Indian Army chief’s visit had to be seen in the context of Israel’s growing ties with Arab states and Iran’s efforts to position itself as a key player in West Asia.
“The Saudis have concerns about Iran – such as Iran’s recent agreement with China – and feel their leadership is under threat because of recent developments related to Israel but they will insist on a solution for the Palestine issue. Such a visit from India could also be a way to mount pressure on Pakistan to not get closer to Iran,” Rahman said.
“The regional dynamics are rapidly changing and even Pakistan has moved away from Saudi Arabia and the UAE and tried to form an alternative Islamic front with Malaysia and Turkey,” Patil said. “This visit sends multiple signals to multiple players.”
Patil also pointed to reports of mediation by the Saudi and UAE leadership during last year’s India-Pakistan standoff triggered by the Pulwama suicide bombing and said New Delhi’s defence and security cooperation with Arab states has so far focused largely on counter-terrorism, including sharing of information on Pakistan-based terror groups.
The upcoming visit could be seen as part of India’s efforts to broad-base security ties to include more military exchanges and exercises, Patil said. “An obvious outcome will be a reciprocal visit by the Saudi Army chief,” he added.
India and Saudi Arabia signed an MoU on defence cooperation in 2014 and both sides are exploring the possibility of joint production and joint exercises, particularly joint naval drills.