Saudi Arabia and India have started their first ever joint naval exercise just a week after tensions escalated in the Gulf of Oman following an attack on an Israeli-linked tanker. With Saudi Arabi being a vital source of oil for India — its second largest supplier after Iraq — the two countries have long enjoyed strong economic ties, but this week's naval exercise may raise eyebrows over the extent to which the two countries have moved towards deepening military and security ties.
The Indian Navy's flagship, guided-missile destroyer INS Kochi reached Saudi Arabia on Monday for the exercise codenamed "Al-Mohed Al-Hindi 2021". The warship docked in the Kingdom after carrying out an exercise with the UAE Navy off the coast of Abu Dhabi on Saturday.
These drills are part of an ongoing effort to strengthen military ties between the Gulf countries and India. In December, Indian Army Chief of Staff General M. M. Naravane visited Riyadh, the first trip by such a senior Indian officer. Naravane also visited the UAE on the same tour. During his meeting with top Saudi generals, he discussed issues of common interest and ways to enhance bilateral defence cooperation. This week's exercise also follows a recent trip by India's chief air marshal to Israel and the UAE.
The Indian Navy's exercises with the UAE and Saudi Arabia are being held against the backdrop of growing tensions in the region after an Israeli-managed oil tanker was attacked off the coast of Oman. Israel and the US have pointed the finger of blame at Iran. Britain is said to be leading the diplomatic effort by presenting the case against Iran to the UN Security Council.
Meanwhile Pakistan, which is a strong regional rival of India, will be watching Riyadh's ties with New Delhi closely. Islamabad has long been an ally of the Saudis, such that it has provided extensive arms and training for the Royal Saudi Arabian armed forces. Pakistani soldiers have been stationed in Saudi Arabia since the 1970s to protect the Kingdom. However, following the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the two countries have not always seen eye to eye.
Last year, for instance, Pakistan returned $1 billion of a Saudi Arabian loan in a dispute over Kashmir after the South Asian nation's claim that the Saudi-led Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is not doing enough to pressure India over its gross human rights violations in the disputed territory.
The thorny issue of Indian-occupied Kashmir hovers permanently in the background of any diplomatic overtures and military ties that involve Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan. Pro Saudi newspapers have run articles hailing the controversial decision of the Hindu nationalist government led by the far-right Prime Minister Narendra Modi to revoke Kashmir's special status which guaranteed the region's autonomy. Modi's de facto annexation was seen widely as illegal under international law, which considers India to be an occupying power in Jammu and Kashmir.