Defence cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia has been strengthened with events such as meetings of the Joint Committee on Defence Cooperation, signing of the ‘Strategic Partnership Council Agreement’, bilateral exchanges involving the armed forces, especially the maritime wings and signing of an MoU between Saudi General Authority of Military Industries and India’s Department of Defence Production. Among other benefits, these measures are expected to ensure security in the crucial western Indian Ocean Region.
India and Saudi Arabia have traditionally enjoyed warm relations, especially in the commercial sector and presently Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth largest trade partner. While bilateral trade has been thriving, cooperation in defence and civil aviation also has been on an upswing in recent years.
In fact, the two countries have benefited from historical trade as well as spiritual links and people-to-people contacts, which were formalised with diplomatic relationship being established after India’s Independence in 1947. Over the years, the ties were strengthened with the visits of Indian Prime Ministers to Saudi Arabia. While Jawaharlal Nehru travelled to the Arab nation in 1956, Indira Gandhi visited in 1982, Manmohan Singh in 2010 and Narendra Modi in 2016 and 2019.
Among these visits, Manmohan Singh’s visit was significant as the bilateral ties became dynamic with the signing of the ‘Riyadh Declaration’, which elevated the relationship to a strategic partnership. An extradition treaty was also signed by India and Saudi Arabia during the visit. Four agreements relating to transfer of sentenced persons, cultural cooperation, Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Indian Space Research Organisation and King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology for cooperation in peaceful use of outer space and joint research and information technology were also signed.
Joint Committee on Defence
After Singh in 2010, the then-Defence Minister A K Antony visited Saudi Arabia in 2012 which was the first by an Indian defence minister to Riyadh. This was followed by the signing a Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation in February 2014, which strengthened the defence partnership. India and Saudi Arabia also agreed to set up a Joint Committee on Defence Cooperation (JCDC) to identify and augment defence collaboration between the two sides. Over the years, the JCDC has held several sittings with discussions covering areas such as training and capacity building, intelligence exchange, maritime security, and the promotion of defence industries.
The agenda of Modi’s visit in 2016 included topics such as energy, security, trade and well-being of the Indian diaspora. During the Prime Minister’s second visit to the Arab nation in 2019, the ‘Strategic Partnership Council Agreement’ was signed. This pact identified India as one among Saudi Arabia’s ‘Strategic Partner Countries.’
Visits by Saudi royalty
Over the years, visits by Saudi monarchs to India too have taken place, each of them taking the bilateral relations to a higher level. While King Saud arrived in 1955, King Abdullah visited in 2006. Subsequently, King Salman made an official visit in 2016. During King Abdullah’s visit, both countries formed a strategic energy partnership, known as ‘Delhi Declaration.’ India being a top importer of oil from Saudi Arabia, the declaration provided for a reliable, stable and increased volume of crude oil to India.
Incidentally, the defence cooperation between the two countries received a major thrust with the visit of then-Crown Prince Salman – the present king – to New Delhi in 2014, when a Memorandum of Understanding on defence cooperation was formally signed. Other crucial visits to India were that of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the deputy prime minister and minister of defence of Saudi Arabia, both in 2019. Apart from boosting commercial ties and sharing energy interests, these visits demonstrated that security and defence cooperation is becoming a higher priority in India-Saudi relationship.
Among the major areas of defence and security cooperation is the maritime sector. While Saudi Arabia has always played a significant role in ensuring the region’s overall maritime security, India, thanks to its geostrategic location and energy interests, has been actively securing international trading routes in the region. Saudi Arabia has been keen on strengthening maritime security cooperation with India in the western Indian Ocean region, which includes some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes such as those in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf.
Consequently, bilateral engagements by the Royal Saudi Naval Forces with the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard have witnessed a spurt, particularly after the year 2000. In fact, goodwill visits by Indian ships to Saudi Arabia have been an important part of defence cooperation.
Similarly, India’s then chief of the naval staff Admiral Sunil Lanba visited Saudi Arabia in 2018, during which he took a tour of the Naval Operations Center, Naval Fire and Rescue School, and Western Fleet at Jeddah, including the frigate HMS Dammam, apart from holding high-level meetings with the authorities in the Kingdom.
Other landmark defence events
Another milestone in the India-Saudi defence relationship was witnessed in August 2015, when, for the first time, the Kingdom allowed fighter aircraft of the Indian Air Force to land at its military bases in Taif.
The visit of Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to Saudi Arabia in 2019 also led to strengthening of defence cooperation. In a historic first visit, General M M Naravane, chief of the Indian Army, arrived in Saudi Arabia in December 2020. During his visit, it was decided to conduct joint exercises by the Armies of the two nations.
Saudi armed forces have also regularly attended training programmes at Indian military institutions including the National Defence College, New Delhi; the College of Defence Management, Secunderabad and the Defence Services and Staff College, Wellington.
In another development, India and Saudi Arabia agreed to strengthen their cooperation in the area of defence production, with the signing of an MoU between Saudi General Authority of Military Industries and India’s Department of Defence Production.
Under Saudi Arabia’s ‘Vision 2030’ reform plans and the flagship ‘Made in India’ initiative of the Indian government, cooperation in the research, development and manufacture of weapon systems and equipment offers great potential. Authorities in both nations have revealed that they would have particular interest in collaborating in the fields of shipbuilding, ammunition manufacturing, drone technology, cyber-security, space and emerging new technologies.
The General Authority of Military Industries of Saudi Arabia and the Department of Defence Production of India signed an agreement to achieve these targets on the sidelines of Prime Minister Modi’s official visit to Riyadh in 2019. The pact calls for increased collaboration in military acquisitions, joint research, forming joint ventures and technology transfers. Moreover, during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit, India and Saudi Arabia signed over a dozen deals in several key sectors including defence, civil aviation, oil and gas intended to take the bilateral relations to a higher level.
The depth of India-Saudi defence relations was highlighted during the Yemen evacuations in 2015. At the time of the crisis, the Saudi Ministry of Defence gave access to Indian aircraft and ships engaged in the evacuation of Indian nationals from the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, as well as from the ports of Aden and Al-Hodeida as part of ‘Operation Raahat.’
The international nature of terrorism has been a cause of concern to both India and Saudi Arabia. As a result, security cooperation and intelligence sharing are important components of the strategic partnership between the two countries. Defence experts have suggested that a possible engagement of India with the Riyadh-based Islamic Military Counter Terror Coalition could be beneficial to the region. In fact, India and Saudi Arabia are likely to sign an agreement in defence intelligence soon which would further expand the bilateral security cooperation.