March 07, 2011

Indo-Saudi Camaraderie: A Strategic Alliance?

by Uddipan Mukherjee

In March 2011, the Indian Army is expected to hold joint military exercises with the Royal Saudi Land Force (RSLF) in Saudi Arabia (SA). It is reported that India will also construct a mountain warfare training school there. However, official details are yet to be public.

As far as information is available, only the RSLF is to be involved in this exercise and not the National Guards of SA. In fact, in 2006, when SA had joint training with Pakistani forces, it was only the RSLF which took part.

Interestingly, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud is expected to visit India at the same time when the joint exercises would be held. Prince Turki is the person who was one of the ‘behind the scenes’ architect of the Mujahideen counterattacks against Soviet troops in Afghanistan during 1979-89.

There are also reports that Pakistan army may establish a mountain warfare school in SA. It is to be constructed in the south-western region of the country in a town known as “Khamis”. Khamis-Mushayt (at an altitude of 6,700 feet) is also the Headquarters of the Southern Area Command and the home of the Field Artillery and Infantry Schools of SA. The general terrain of the area is hilly.

Oil and energy are the major parameters which define the relationship between India and the Gulf countries, which the former treat as its ‘extended neighbourhood’. However, India is pushing to enhance strategic ties with the region in its bid to realize its post-2005 ‘Look West Policy’.

India has already discussed its intention of joining the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a permanent member. Hence, a warm relationship with the Gulf countries is a pre-requisite to garner necessary diplomatic support. In that direction, military cooperation with the Gulf countries to deal with common security threats like piracy and Islamic extremism is a feasible weapon.

Thus, a heightened camaraderie between India and Saudi Arabia may have, inter alia, the following implications:

1. India may be attempting to woo SA in order to diplomatically corner Pakistan as SA is a Sunni-Muslim country and a donor to Pakistan. So, having SA by its side, India can try to pressurise Pakistan in the international rostrum.

2. Though behind the scenes maneuvering of White House is hard to be outrightly rejected, however, this cannot be accepted to be the only reason for the joint exercises. It seems natural that Indian Foreign Policy is slowly but surely aligning with USA and its supposed allies in the Middle East: viz Israel and Saudi Arabia.

3. Third, but not altogether insignificant, this joint exercise could be interpreted as fairly routine that Indian armed forces periodically carry out with foreign countries.

India is supposed to have the capabilities to help Riyadh in Mountain Warfare Training as it has a well developed Jungle Warfare School at a place called Variengte in the North-Eastern province of Mizoram (hilly tracts). Incidentally, armed forces of other nation-states (viz. USA) have also been trained in that school. Apart from Variengte, India has recently developed another counter-insurgency school at Kanker, in the Maoist-affected province of Chattisgarh.

Furthermore, Indian ground forces are skillful in desert warfare because it had fought ground wars with Pakistan in the Thar desert region (North-Western part of India). Also, India's Main Battle Tank "Arjun" has specifically been developed for desert warfare.

Presently, a number of Saudi army officers are attending training courses in India. And previously, on 10 May 2008, the then vice chief of Indian Army paid a two-day official visit to Riyadh, aimed at fostering defence cooperation between the two countries.

As far as counterinsurgency is concerned, the general capability of Saudi troops is still under the scanner as they are yet to fight successfully any sustained internal insurgency. Historically speaking, they have defeated the Yemeni forces in 1969 and also took part in the Gulf War in 1991: both of which were conventional battles. Moreover, in terms of rank, SA is at the 24th position and India is at 4th position in the category of military prowess.

Currently, SA wants to upgrade its anti-terrorist skills (the possible Al-Qaeda threat spilling from Yemen) and seeks help in that regard. Some American forces are still residing in SA in the wake of the Gulf War and the country remains a heavy importer of US defence equipments.

Actually, the landmark visit of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz to India in January 2006 as the Chief Guest of Republic Day celebrations opened a new chapter in the Indo-Saudi bilateral relations. King Abdullah referred to India as his ‘second home’ and signed the “Delhi Declaration”. It was the first such bilateral document ever signed by a Saudi King. The ‘Delhi Declaration’ provides a comprehensive road map for bilateral relations. Several Agreements/MOUs were signed during the visit including MOU on Combating Crime, Bilateral Investment Protection Agreement and the Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement.

The momentum generated by extensive bilateral interactions after King Abdullah’s visit culminated in the historic visit of the Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, to Saudi Arabia from February 27- March 1, 2010. Dr Singh held discussions with King Abdullah and both leaders signed the “Riyadh Declaration” which outlined a “new era of strategic partnership” between the two countries in security, defence, political and economic areas.

It is not difficult to extract American interests in a better cooperation between India and SA. The sole purpose of the US is to erect an alliance of US-Israel-SA-India in Asia so as to counter Iran and China. How both SA and India react to such a covert American ambition is to be keenly watched.


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