The Omani factor in India’s foreign policy
Following Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic trip to Palestine earlier this month he made official visits to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Sultanate of Oman, marking a landmark in India-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) relations. Modi’s trip further signaled India’s determination to play a more confident role in the Middle East at a time when New Delhi’s interests in the Arab world have grown far beyond protecting steady access to hydrocarbon resources and have entered domains such as anti-terror cooperation and countering China’s international influence.
While in the UAE, Modi’s second official trip to the Emirates since 2015, India’s Prime Minister met with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, and signed five memorandums of understanding (MoUs) in the energy, financial, and transportation sectors. At the Wahat al-Karama memorial, Modi paid tribute to the UAE’s military forces and he witnessed the opening ceremony for Abu Dhabi’s first Hindu temple, both illustrating the deep ties between India and the UAE, which is home to three million Indians.
Modi in Muscat
After leaving Dubai, Modi visited Oman where he met with His Majesty Sultan Qaboos. Representatives of both governments signed eight agreements, including an MoU that will permit the Indian Navy to use the Sultanate’s Port of Duqm. At this juncture, this port on Oman’s Arabian Sea coast, which is within close geographic proximity to Mumbai, is set to serve as India’s strategic gateway to the Middle East and East Africa.
Likewise, Delhi’s quest to secure a military foothold in Duqm fits neatly into Oman’s foreign policy agenda of diversifying its security allies beyond Muscat’s most important Western defense ally, the United States.
The growth of defense cooperation between Oman and India is not new. In the 1970s, the Sultanate was the first country to establish security ties. Having opened a consulate and later embassy in Oman in 1965 and 1973, respectively, India gained favor in Muscat by keeping its diplomatic presence in the Sultanate despite the Dhofar rebellion, which caused many foreign governments to withdraw their diplomats from Oman during the years of bloody violence that beset the Sultanate.
In 1996, Oman and India signed an MoU to enhance bilateral cooperation in the fight against transnational crime and terrorism. Two years later, naval cooperation commenced with joint naval drills beginning in 2004, four years before the two countries established a “strategic partnership” that deepened the security dimensions of Muscat-New Delhi relations. In 2009, Oman and India’s air forces began conducting joint exercises and six years later the two countries’ armies carried out Najah-I, a joint-training exercise in Jebel Akhdar. By 2016, India’s Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar visited the Sultanate and signed several bilateral defense pacts, which included Indian arms sales to Oman. Last September, the Indians sent an attack submarine to Duqm, along with a naval ship and two long-range maritime patrol aircraft.
The Grander Geopolitical Picture
The MoU signed this month raises questions about Oman’s role in the Sino-Indo geopolitical rivalry. Unquestionably, a key factor motivating India to secure access to Duqm is New Delhi’s interest in countering China’s growing leverage in the Indian Ocean via its network of sites that enable the People’s Liberation Army Navy to patrol the greater region. Yet Oman, which is committed to a foreign policy based on cordial and cooperative relations with as many countries as possible, is not taking sides in the between rivalry between Beijing and New Delhi. Muscat’s interest is in deepening ties with both simultaneously and making Oman of greater strategic value to all major Asian economic powers. Historically, Oman has successfully balanced the ambitions of larger states against each other as a strategy to further Muscat’s interests by securing autonomy from any one ally.
In seeking to benefit from global trade near/via the Strait of Hormuz, the development of Oman’s infrastructure will position the Sultanate to compete with the UAE and other countries that are keen on capitalizing on their logistics hubs to play a more pivotal role in global trade via the Gulf. With both Beijing and New Delhi determined to take advantage of Omani trade networks to gain access to more markets in African and Middle Eastern markets, Muscat seeks to benefit from Sino-Indo competition to accelerate the Sultanate’s economic diversification beyond its hydrocarbon sector through the growth of non-oil sectors such as logistics and transportation that more global trade is to help flourish.
Similarly, Oman has its sights set on enhancing relations with India’s arch-rival, Pakistan, as well as states on both sides of other rivalries including the United States, Russia, Iran, Egypt, and all GCC states involved in the Qatar crisis. Indeed, for years there has been talk of an India-Iran-Oman triangular gas partnership. Although such plans may challenge U.S. and Saudi geostrategic interests in the Gulf and Indian Ocean, New Delhi, Tehran, and Muscat’s foreign ministers met in New York last year and affirmed their plans for deeper energy cooperation.
Future of Indo-Oman Relations
Looking ahead, Oman is set to play an important role in New Delhi’s foreign policy throughout the greater Indian Ocean and the Middle East. As many Arab states grapple with the crises of sectarian unrest, terrorism, and unstable post-revolution transitions, Oman’s unique climate of stability and peaceful sectarian co-existence will add to the value that India places on the Sultanate as a reliable partner. With Oman’s largest foreign community being from India, people-to-people bonds that link these two Indian Ocean countries will continue to strengthen the New Delhi-Muscat relationship.
India and all Asian powers view Oman and Kuwait as the two GCC states most capable of helping different sides of Middle Eastern disputes through mediation and compromise, as opposed to war. On top of Muscat’s role in helping the P5+1 and Iran reach the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015, Oman is a commendable mediator in the Yemeni crisis—the continuation of which threatens Indian and other Asian countries’ trade interests in the Bab-el-Mandab and Red Sea, a vital saltwater inlet for East-West trade.
Based on all that Oman and India offer each other, odds are good that as New Delhi asserts an increasingly influential foreign policy in the Middle East the two countries will build on their history of ancient maritime trade and elevate their decades-old strategic partnership to new heights in the years ahead.
Dr. Khalid Al Jaber is the Director of Gulf International Forum and Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics.
Source:- The Peninsula Qatar