FEATURED | Evolution of Geo-Strategic Relations between India and Oman

FEATURED | Evolution of Geo-Strategic Relations between India and Oman

 By IndraStra Global Editorial Team

Since its independence, Oman has followed a foreign policy largely autonomous from the Gulf Cooperation Council member States. Oman’s initiatives to strengthen cooperation with India can be seen as part of its efforts to diversify its security partnerships. Muscat’s ministerial visit to New Delhi, weeks after the new Indian government took charge in 2014, is suggestive of India’s centrality in the Gulf’s strategic calculus. 

FEATURED | Evolution of Geo-Strategic Relations between India and Oman

Image Attribute: Jaguars of ROAF and IAF at Joint Exercise / Source: Wikimedia Commons

Even though India’s engagement with the Gulf region is largely limited to energy and trade related exchanges, India and Oman’s security ties are relatively developed. In 1972, they signed a military protocol wherein Indian Navy personnel were deployed in Oman for three years. The protocol was institutionalized in the immediate aftermath of Oman’s independence from Britain. Another MoU on defence cooperation was signed between India and Oman in 2005. Areas of cooperation include joint military exercises, military training and IT, educational courses and programmes, exchange of observers and formal visits. Currently, a two-tier arrangement for defence cooperation – Joint Military Cooperation Committee (JMCC) and Air Force-to-Air Force Staff Talks (AFST) - exists with Oman.

Over the years, India’s bilateral security ties have advanced with Oman, which has become central to any international strategy to stabilize the Arabian Sea as well as the Persian Gulf, the world’s most volatile sea links. They also come under the shadow of terrorism, piracy and increasing illegal traffic in narcotics, arms and personne. Post signing of a protocol on military relations, India and Oman have developed vibrant military cooperation during the last decade. Maritime cooperation between India and Oman is essential to impose security in the region. This was highlighted by Rear Admiral Anil K. Chawla, Flag Officer in Command of the Indian Navy’s Western Fleet while addressing a gathering at a reception on INS Mysore (on September 22, 2013) at Port Sultan Qaboos when he said that the Omani Government provided important support to the ships of Indian Navy’s Western fleet during their deployment in the Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy activities. “In fact, it will not be wrong to state that without Oman’s staunch support to all the navies participating in anti-piracy operations in the region, the scourge would have not been brought under control. Oman is playing a key role in bringing stability in Somalia.” Speaking on the occasion, J.S. Mukul, the Indian Ambassador to Oman, said that Port of Salalah is fast emerging as a regional hub in the multilateral fight against piracy. He added that “naval cooperation forms an important pillar of our multi-faceted relationship. The Indian Navy and RNO regularly conduct exercises, and training exchanges at all levels have further cemented bilateral ties. Oman has become an exceptionally reliable and close friend of India in supporting operations of our ships and aircraft in the region. 


Though, Muscat has also expanded it's military relations with Beijing, which include joint anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Chinese naval vessels dock at the Port of Salalah in Oman for replenishment. Oman’s Defence Minister, Ayyiid Badr al-Busaidi, announced in 2010 that "his military would continue to provide the Chinese naval fleet with supplies if necessary". Oman was also the first Arab nation to export oil to China in 1983, to be noted.

Flashback:

Oman’s centrality to India’s energy and maritime security dates back to the 19th and 20th century. The British government in India established New Delhi’s political and security role in Oman through the appointment of a Political Agent in Muscat to manage British India’s relations and protect ships in the Arabian Sea. As a protector of the Gulf Sheikhdoms, the British Raj assumed responsibility for the foreign affairs and defence of Oman (and the Gulf Sheikhdoms) in the 19th century.

The Government of Bombay established a Persian Gulf Squadron in 1821 to enforce the General Treaty - anti-piracy treaty - using about 7 ships-of-war and 4 gunboats to patrol the Arabian waters. The Sultan of Muscat was also the first Gulf ruler to be extended the protection of the Gulf squadron5 . Post-independence, India signed a Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation (1953) with Oman, which segregated Indo-Oman relations from the British Political Agent in Muscat .

Former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sultan Qaboos had signed a MoU on military cooperation in 1985 and joint naval exercises had begun in January 1993. ’Naseem al Bahr’, a biennial joint naval exercise, completed its ninth edition in September 2013 1. Oman also provides berthing facilities to Indian navy warships for anti-piracy operations . MoUs on defence cooperation in 2005 and 2006 strengthened the military dimension of this bilateral relationship.

Current Scenario:


   Image Attribute: Suspected Joint Indo-Omani SIGINT Station Tapping Merchant Traffic Route of Persian Gulf

According to reports, Oman hosting the first Indian listening post in the Persian Gulf, a signal intelligence facility at Ras Al-Hadd site, which is now essentially the westernmost outpost of the Indian navy’s growing maritime domain awareness network around the Indian Ocean.

In January 2015, two army units from India and Oman trained hard in the rugged mountains of Jebel Akhdar with a collective aim of raising combat efficiency, development of field skills, coordination in information exchange and supporting army-to-army bond between two friendly nations. The joint military exercise, named ‘Najah-I’ or ‘Success-I’, held from January 14-22 was the first between the Indian Army and Royal Oman Army, and also the first event to mark the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between both the nations this year, underlining the elevated ‘strategic’ dimension in the bilateral ties.

 Suspected SIGINT Station at  Masirah Air Force Base

Image Attribute: Suspected SIGINT Station at  Masirah Air Force Base initiated under US CLUSTRUM SPECTRUM Program, Possibly Upgraded to Next Technology Platform / Source: Google Maps / Indian access to this site is contested.



With time, a number of high level ministerial exchanges have reviewed and reinforced the bilateral relationship. Former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had visited Oman in 2008 and it was agreed to convert the relationship into a strategic partnership. The visit also resulted in the signing of MoUs on a Joint Investment Fund and manpower development with Oman.

Following a boost in relations, Royal Air Force of Oman (ROFA) and the Indian Air Force (IAF) conducted joint military exercises for the first time in 2009. IAF vice Chief Air Marshal P.K. Barbora stated that "The bilateral exercise would also be cost-effective in terms of benefit realization of operational and tactical preparedness over an unknown mixed terrain of land and desert". ROFA airbases also serve as maintenance and refueling points for the IAF .

Hydrocarbon Angle:

India-Oman economic engagement is likely to become more multifaceted in the years ahead, hydrocarbons will continue to play a major role. Feasibility studies have shown that an undersea natural gas pipeline from Oman to India can be executed for around $5 billion and transport up to 31 million cubic meters of gas every day. Proposals for Iranian reserves to feed into this pipeline have also been floated.



Image Attribute: Pipeline route from the Middle East compression station (MECS) to the Gujarat pipeline receiving terminal (GPRT) in India via an offshore gas compression system (OGCS) on the Qalhat Seamount / Source: Gulf State Analytics

Iranian involvement in the pipeline project will obviously remain uncertain as long as U.S. sanctions make it especially complicated to deal with Tehran. Nevertheless, the fact that India is moving forward with a $100 million investment in Iran’s Chabahar port means that Iran’s involvement cannot be ruled out forever. The proposed India-Oman pipeline is in any case expected to include the participation of Qatar, which sells India most of its liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports at the moment.

Conclusion:

As a country, Oman not only hosts some 700,000 Indian expatriates, but also key Indian listening facilities, Oman is assuming ever-greater importance for New Delhi as an outpost to project Indian influence—especially with the rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. The Indian navy, which already has berthing facilities in Omani ports, is expected to increase the frequency of its visits while conducting regular joint exercises. In addition to the heightened naval engagement, Oman will be looking to India for help in diversifying its economy through greater bilateral investment, even as the two countries discuss the feasibility of an undersea gas pipeline involving Iran.

Even though the region is extremely critical to India’s core interests of energy and economics, it has not featured sufficiently in New Delhi’s strategic policies. China’s strengthening maritime position and political interaction with the region also necessitate greater defence participation from India in the Gulf. 

Excerpts Are Taken From:

1. Oman at 40 , Annual Business Magazine - [Link]
2. The Importance of Indo-Omani Relations, Kanchi Gupta, ORF - [Link]
3. Masirah Island WRM Program Site - [Link]

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