The Sultanate of Oman with a population of 2.9 million is crucial to India’s foreign policy pursuits in the Persian Gulf region which had its basis in the 1953 India-Oman Treaty of Friendship, Navigation and Commerce. It was also the first of its kind between India and an Arab nation1. India’s strategic calculations is motivated by its critical martime geographical location and its 1,200 miles long maritime boundary connecting it with the vital maritime routes that link it up with Europe2. At the same time, India’s role is pertinent to its food security which supplies wheat, rice, sugar and other food products to the Gulf nation.
Since 2014, Indo-Omani ties have registered significant rise under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In June 2014, Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi became the first foreign dignitary to visit India. From Indian side, the state visits of Indian leaders such as, external Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj (February 17-18, 2015), Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar (May 2016) and Minister of State for External Affairs M. J. Akbar played an important role in cultivating trade, economic, political and defence relations. Most importantly, the visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 12 February 2018 signified the strategic importance India accords to the Gulf nation which an integral component in its re-invented ‘Act West’ policy. The Indian Prime Minister met with the Sultan Sayyid Qaboos Bin Said Al Said and both leaders focussed on strengthening academic cooperation, cooperation in peaceful uses of outer space, health, tourism and signed a MoU between National Defence College Sultanate of Oman and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
Defence ties: A Strong Area in Relations
The defence ties between India and Oman have emerged as a key pillar in the strategic partnership3. In 2005, Oman became first country in GCC to institute a robust defence and security cooperation mechanism with India which was renewed in 2016.4 Notably in 2010, Omani government announced its decision to purchase assault rifle INSAS namely Indian Small Arms Systems manufactured by Indian government owned Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) after it successfully passed the trial run and endurance tests for extreme temperatures. It therefore became the standard assault rifle for the Royal Omani Army5.
In terms of the new government under Modi, his Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar paid a three-day visit to Oman on 20-22 May 2016. During the visit, four MOUs/Protocol were signed that included a MoU on defence cooperation. Under ITEC 2 scheme, India offers a large number of courses to Omani Military personnel6. In addition, “Indian Navy has been deploying mobile training teams in Oman on an annual basis for training of RNO personnel”7. For maritime security, the Hydrographic8 cooperation between India and Oman has been a key feature in Indian Navy’s regional engagement initiatives9. Interactions in the defence/security sphere have been robust in recent times. In March 2017, the troops of the two countries finished ‘al-Nagah-II 2017’ military exercise in Himachal Pradesh. In January 2017, the Air Force exercise ‘Eastern Bridge’ concluded at Jamnagar. While in December 2017 Naval Exercise culminated in Oman10.
During the Indian Prime Minister’s visit, both states signed an annexure to the existing MoU on military cooperation. According to the agreement, Indian warships are allowed access to the strategically located Duqm port. It would therefore allow Indian navy to use the port and dry dock facility for maintenance of naval ships. The opening of Duqm Port is vital for India to enhance its naval activities in the Indian Ocean and help to cater India’s maritime security concerns such as piracy in the Arabian Sea region11.
Flourishing Energy Ties
The rapidly growing energy demand of India has contributed to the need for long term energy partnerships with countries like Oman. The growing energy demands For India, the SAGE has been constructing an underwater natural gas pipeline via Oman, the Middle East to India Deepwater Pipeline (MEIDP)-also known as the Iran-Oman-India pipeline. The project is under construction and sought to bring Iranian cheaper natural gas to India via Oman.
Oman has also conveyed its desire to join International Solar Alliance to India. The ISA provides a useful platform for countries with rich potential of solar energy to work together to tap their full potential. Oman has also “reiterate India’s offer to share India’s experience and capabilities with Oman in development of its renewable sources of energy, such as solar and wind power etc”12. India has reiterated invitation to “Oman to participate in building the strategic oil reserves in India. Responding to PM Modi, Sultan informed about its own initiatives “to create its strategic oil reserves in Ras Markaz near Duqm”13 . The cooperation in the sphere of strategic reserves will help both the countries to deal with emergency fuel shortage in near future and to safeguard the energy security during the critical time.
Rising New Areas of Cooperation
Apart from defence, energy and maritime security, the two countries has shown considerable interest in expanding bilateral ties in the new areas of cooperation such as cyber security, outer space and renewable energy. In the recent years, both states have acknowledged the importance of improving collaboration in field of cyber security. India’s know-how in space infrastructure and technologies and its efforts at scientific exchange and resource development, training and use of space technologies was appreciated by the Omani Sultan during PM Modi’s visit. Consequently, in February 2018 both states signed MoU to enhance cooperation in the space sector. Food security is another area where India’s efforts have proved significantly useful for Oman. India has played an important role in ensuring Oman’s long-term food security and developing fisheries sector. Both states have also undertaken joint venture in the production of fertilizers.
While defence ties significantly contributes in Indo-Omani ties, non-defence areas continue to occupy a large share in the bilateral relationship. It is evidenced by the fact that during Indian Prime Minister’s visit in February 2018, seven out of eight MoUs and agreements were focused on non-security related areas of cooperation such as health, outer-space, tourism and Academic and Scholarly cooperation.
Though, both the countries share a close rapport but New Delhi is still waiting to welcome the Sultan Qaboos who is yet to receive the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International understanding, which was conferred on him for the year 2004. In 2013, Sultan Qaboos was supposed to visit India as the chief guest for the Republic Day parade but the visit did not materialize for some reasons. In this context, the Sultan Qaboos visit to India will take the centuries old stable relations between the countries to other heights and provide a fresh fillip in enhancing the ties.
*About the authors:
Jatin Kumar is working as Research Assistant at Institute for Defence studies and Analysis.
Hirak Jyoti Das is Phd candidate at centre for West Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
2. Kumar, Jatin (2018), “Oman” in P. R Kumaraswamy and Meena Singh Roy, Persian Gulf 2016-17: India’s Relations with the Region, Pentagon Press: New Delhi.
8. Hydrography is a resource intensive activity, and the Indian Navy is one of the few navies with considerable expertise in this field.