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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Indian Army Chief’s first visit to Saudi Arabia: How Important?

Indian media describes Indian Army Chief's first visit to Saudi Arabia as historic. Most Pakistani analysts think it's important - given the ongoing engagements between India, UAE and Israel - but perhaps not as significant as being billed by India. Will this upset the long standing strategic relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia? GVS report examines.

General Manoj Mukund Naravane, Indian Army Chief, will be India’s first army chief to visit Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) in what has been termed by Indian media as “a historic tour” starting off today. The Indian army chief will split his four-day trip between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Analysts in China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Qatar will be watching closely. 

General Narvane became the chief of Army Staff on December 31, 2019.  Naravane will spend his first two days in Saudi Arabia where he is scheduled to meet his counterpart in Riyadh and address the Saudi National Defence College before heading to Abu Dhabi. This may represent the beginning of high level military to military engagement and diplomacy between the Kingdom and India. 

Media in the region are attaching lots of importance to the visit as it is coming at a time when over the past few months India, Israel, and other regional powers are seen developing strategic partnerships – especially with the emergence of Abraham Accord. But it is a fact that India and Saudi Arabia are developing a strategic relationship as early as 2014.

Apart from being one of the largest energy suppliers to India and a major destination of Indian workers, Saudi Arabia has also emerged as a key strategic partner of India in recent years. Both sides entered into a defence MoU in 2014.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Saudi Arabia in April 2016 had urged the Kingdom to participate in the flagship schemes of India like “Start up India” and “Smart city projects”.

MBS and his Foreign Minister visited India in 2019 again and met the senior military and political leadership. Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted a lunch in honour of the Crown Prince at Hyderabad House.

According to the reports, after MBS visit it was learned that Saudi Arabia would invest $11 billion in the first joint venture West Coast Refinery and Petrochemical Project (total estimated cost $44 billion). An investment of $10 billion was likely through PIF and its tech partners. Saudi Aramco said it was in talks with Reliance Industries Ltd and others for more projects in India.

Later on, PM Modi visited Saudi Arabia in October 2019. The visit was seen with a lot of interest by Pakistani media and foreign office. Modi and MBS signed the Strategic Partnership Council Agreement to coordinate on important issues.

Read more: Israel PM Netanyahu holds secret meeting with MBS in Saudi Arabia: report

Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar tweeted, “Leaving with a marked upswing in bilateral relations. PM Narendra Modi departs from Riyadh after steering the India-Saudi relationship on an upward trajectory pointing towards greater collaboration in the future.”

There were other developments as well. In July 2017, PM Modi went to Tel Aviv, Israel and became the first Indian prime minister to have visited the Jewish state. Both countries reportedly agreed on military and cybersecurity deals.

Notably, Modi did not travel to Ramallah or meet Palestinian leaders to avoid any possible backlash from Israel.

In January 2018, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to New Delhi on a six-day visit. He was the first Israeli PM to visit India since 2003.

Abraham Accord: Changing regional alliances

Recently, Israeli media claimed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly met MBS ,in the Saudi city of Neom, on November 23. 2020.  The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was present in the meeting.

Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen also attended the meeting, which was reportedly held in Neom on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, reported Israel’s Kan public radio and Army Radio said

However, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, has denied reports on Twitter.

In September this year, the UAE and Bahrain’s signed the Abraham Accord and established diplomatic relations with Israel.

The UAE normalized ties in August, Bahrain in September, and Sudan announced normalization of relations with Israel in October 2020.

Before that, the Arab state’s official recognition of Israel was conditional on the end of the occupation of Palestinian territories and the establishment of the two-state solution on the 1967 borders.

It is also important to note that Saudi Arabia is India’s second-biggest supplier of oil after Iraq. It is also now India’s fourth-largest trading partner with bilateral trade at $27.48 billion in 2017-18 and Saudi investment of around $100 billion is in the pipeline in areas ranging from energy, refining, petrochemicals, and infrastructure to agriculture, minerals, and mining.

According to The Economic Times, Saudi Arabia is a key pillar of India’s energy security, being a source of 17 per cent or more of crude oil and 32 per cent of LPG requirements of India.

Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia and UAE

Given this background, General Naravane’s visit gains more attention and becomes important for the other stakeholders including Pakistan, the Kingdom’s closest ally. Pakistan has very close relations with Saudi Arabia and UAE.

According to a report published in the Arab News, Crown Prince Saud bin Abdul Aziz laid the foundation of Pakistan-Saudi relations way back in 1940 when he led a high-profile delegation to Karachi, accompanied by five of his brothers, three of whom later became Saudi kings. Aziz was hosted by Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah weeks after his Muslim League party passed the Lahore Resolution asking for a separate Muslim majority nation-state which ultimately carved the way for the partition of British India in 1947.

Next, in 1943 on Jinnah’s appeal, Saudi Arabia gave £10,000 for those affected by famine in Bengal.

Pakistani President Ayub Khan’s voyage to Riyadh in 1960 laid the foundation for a convergence of strategic interests, following which Saudi Arabia supported Pakistan during both the 1965 and 1971 wars with India. A bilateral defense cooperation protocol was also framed during Saudi defense and aviation minister Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz’s visit to Pakistan in the late sixties.

Two years following his ascent to the throne, King Faisal in 1966 made a historic visit to Pakistan, during which the government named two roads, an airbase, a city, and a mosque after him. In 1976, the foundations for Islamabad’s famed Faisal mosque were laid by King Khalid bin Abdul Aziz himself.

Read more: Normalization with Israel ‘would get me killed by my own people’: Saudi Prince MBS

When Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto came into power and sought Saudi financial assistance to level the playing field amid growing threats from India’s nuclear aspirations, the Kingdom obliged, and between 1973 and 1980, Pakistan was a major recipient of Saudi financial aid of up to $502 million.

Pakistan also played an important role in the material, institutional and structural development of the GCC countries. Pakistan’s human resource and military played a predominant role in the development of the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

In the 1980s, Pakistan helped the UAE establish Emirate Airlines. With a budget of $10 million, Emirates rented two aircraft from Pakistan.

It also received administrative support and engineering assistance in running the airline the two aircraft that the new airline Emirates rented were: A Boeing 737–300 and an Airbus A300B4-200.

New regional order in the making: Where does Pakistan stand?

Due to some important regional changes, the nature of Pakistan’s relationship with the GCC countries is changing. Pakistan has been trying to balance its relation with both Iran and GCC countries lead by Saudi Arabia.  Iran is considered an arch-rival of the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Similarly, Pakistan is also establishing close ties with Turkey and Qatar, two more countries the Kingdom is not on good terms with.  There are also reports that since Pakistan is closer to China, the US is believed to be exercising its influence through the GCC countries over Pakistan.

Political commentators and foreign policy experts believe that that there emerges to be a new regional alignment. India and Israel are moving closer to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Interestingly, all these countries are hostile towards Iran except India.

On the other hand, Pakistan, Turkey, and Qatar are in another bloc and have good relations with China. Notably, according to a July 11 report by the New York Times, the not yet finalized, agreement between Beijing and Tehran will see China invest a total of $400bn in banking, transport, and development sectors in Iran.

In exchange, Beijing expects to receive a regular and heavily discounted, supply of Iranian oil over the next 25 years. The deal is part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that aims to extend his country’s economic and strategic influence across Eurasia.

Read more: Is Saudi Arabia pressing Pakistan to recognize Israel?

Pakistani media and think tanks are deliberating over the changing regional alignments to explore and understand options and opportunities for the foreign office.

A serious discussion took place in a talk show hosted by TV Anchor person, Asad Ullah, on 92 News Channel.

General (retired) Naseem Lodhi, Dr. Moeed Pirzada, a prominent TV anchor and the Editor of GVS Magazine, Dr. Huma Baqai, professor of International Relations at IBA, Karachi, and Ambassador Najm us Saqib agreed on one point that given the regional and global background in mind, the Indian army chief’s visit is not surprising or earthshaking. This is an indication of the new regional alignment, they maintained.

Farah Adeed with additional input by the GVS News Desk.