Explained: Why Indian Army Chief’s Visit To Saudi, UAE Is Significant, And Why Pakistan Will Be Watching Closely
India is looking at strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in keeping with its aim at becoming the dominant power in the Indian Ocean as well as to build markets for its weapons.
Indian Army Chief General M M Naravane is currently on a four-day visit to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Although specifics about the agenda of the visit has not been revealed, apart from the fact that it will help improve relations between India and the Islamic world, the significance of the visit can be understood from the fact that this is the first-ever visit of an Indian Army chief to Saudi Arabia.
The visit to the two Islamic countries comes at a time of major political changes in the region and the world. On one side, the Arab world led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE has started normalising its ties with Israel, its long-time enemy, as it stares at a growing threat from Iran.
With President Donald Trump losing the 3 November election, there is uncertainty about the future course of US foreign policy with regards to the Middle East. Turkey, under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is increasingly asserting its power in the region and interfering in its affairs. The Arab world’s relations with Pakistan appear to be on a decline, with Islamabad drawing closer to Ankara.
India’s close relations with Israel in the security realm, like the close security relations between Pakistan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, had severely limited India’s manoeuvring space when it came to improving military ties with Islamic countries.
Pakistan’s military ties with the Arab world have been traditionally very close. From economic assistance during the development of its nuclear weapons to help during wars with India and support on the Kashmir issue, the Arab world cultivated ties with Pakistan for decades.
Pakistan, in turn, helped train their armies and became a major source of manpower for the oil industry. The ties have been so close that the first five Air Chiefs of the UAE have been Pakistan Air Force officers. Former Pakistan Army Chief heads the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, a military grouping of 41 Muslim countries from Nigeria to Malaysia.
At the same time, India’s security relationship with Israel continued to grow.
However, the tries between Pakistan and the Arab world have been on the downward trajectory for a few years now. Most recently, Pakistan was forced to repay part of a loan Saudi Arabia extended to Pakistan to help it tide over economic crisis. Saudi Arabia’s move came after Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi criticised Riyadh for not taking a stance against India on Kashmir and praised Turkey. Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa had to rush to Saudi Arabia to mend ties.
Simultaneously, the Arab world’s times with Israel have been improving over the last few years, and the two sides have drawn closer over a common threat from Iran. This trend has culminated in Arab countries signing of accords with Israel, normalising ties after decades of war and conflict in the Middle East.
The Arab world’s improving relations with Israel and deteriorating ties with Pakistan — both unconnected and happening at different paces — has created space for India to improve security ties with the Islamic countries.
With this constraint gone, and as it looks at becoming the dominant power in the Indian Ocean, India wants to improve ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
General Naravane’s visit should be seen in this context.
Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are interested in investing in India economically. At the same time, the two countries, among the largest importers of military hardware in the world, can emerge as market for Indian weapons.
Recent news reports say the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have expressed interest in buying India’s BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. This interest may grow to other weapon systems as the threat from Iran becomes more pronounced in the coming years and the war for influence in the Middle East intensifies.
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