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Oman seeks closer security pact with India

The Duqm port overlooks the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. It allows India to keep a watch on growing Chinese PLA naval activity in the region.

Oman seeks closer security pact with India

Rapport: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Sultan of Oman met in New Delhi on December 16. ANI



Col Rajeev Agarwal (Retd)

Assistant Director, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

THE Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tarik, paid a state visit to India last week. This was his first trip to the country after taking over as the Sultan in January 2020 following the demise of his predecessor, Qaboos bin Said. The latter had visited India in 1997.

Six agreements in key areas were signed during Sultan Haitham bin Tarik’s visit. Both countries also signed a joint vision document titled ‘A Partnership For the Future’, which acknowledges the remarkable synergy between Oman’s ‘Vision 2040’ and India’s vision of Amrit Kaal, both aimed at making their countries developed nations by the 2040s.

There was progress in the talks on the India-Oman Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which has the potential to catapult the bilateral relationship to a higher growth trajectory. The bilateral trade has risen from $9.98 billion in the 2021-22 financial year to $12.388 billion during 2022-23, a jump of 24 per cent. Mutual investment flows have been robust. There are over 6,000 India-Oman joint ventures in Oman with an estimated investment of over $7.5 billion. The third tranche of the Oman-India Joint Investment Fund, worth $300 million, was announced during the visit. There is immense interest in India’s digital public infrastructure; the RuPay debit card was launched in Oman in October 2022.

However, the most important component of the partnership that Oman seeks with India is in the sphere of security. Located in a conflict-prone region in the Arabian Peninsula and faced with constant threats of sea piracy and terror, Oman looks to India for enhancing its security. It was the first country in the region with which India signed a defence cooperation agreement (in 2005). It is also the first Gulf country with which all three wings of India’s defence forces have held joint exercises. India trains Omani military officers and has an agreement with its National Defence College.

Both countries have signed a maritime security agreement, which facilitates intelligence-sharing as well patrolling of the sea to ensure safety of ships in the region. The first meeting of the Joint Maritime Committee was held on February 23, 2022. Since 2012-13, an Indian naval ship has remained on duty in the Gulf of Oman on anti-piracy operations. Oman has allowed overflight/transit for India’s military aircraft too. During the Persian Gulf crisis in June 2019, the Indian Navy launched Operation Sankalp and deployed ships which mostly operated off the coast of Oman to facilitate the safe passage of Indian flagged ships through the Persian Gulf. The MoU on Duqm port, signed during PM Modi’s visit to Oman in February 2018, provides basing facilities and Operational Turn Round (OTR) to Indian naval ships. It is developing into a major foothold for the Indian Navy in the region. The strategically located Duqm port overlooks the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea and is in close proximity to the Chabahar port in Iran. It also allows India to keep a discreet watch on growing Chinese PLA naval activity in the region.

Oman is also looking to India for cooperation in defence industry and weapon systems. Oman was the first Gulf country to purchase the Indian Small Arms System (INSAS) assault rifle in 2010. Other items, such as ammunition, artillery guns and surveillance equipment, are also on the wish list. Intelligence-sharing is a key element of the security partnership, especially related to terror funding. Oman and Yemen share a long border. Yemen, which has been battling an internal conflict as well as an external war since 2011, when the ‘Arab Spring’ broke out, poses a grave threat to the internal security of Oman, especially in the restive Dhofar region. Oman has taken India’s help in this regard; an Indian company, Engineering Projects India Ltd (EPIL), executed Phase I and II of the fencing project along the Oman-Yemen border.

Another facet that is not talked about much is the close bond that Oman’s royal family has with India. Sultan Qaboos’s grandfather Sultan Taimur bin Feisal spent over three decades in India after abdicating power in 1932; his mausoleum is in Mumbai. Sultan Said bin Taimur, Sultan Qaboos’s father, was an alumnus of Ajmer’s Mayo College. As a student, Sultan Qaboos was taught by Shankar Dayal Sharma, who later became the President of India. Similarly, many Indian families have deep roots in Oman, having migrated there centuries ago. Oman has honoured these families and accommodated them in its folds. It has permitted them to follow their customs and traditions without any restriction. Oman’s Hindu community has two temples, including one over a century old, and its own cremation grounds. Churches have been permitted and a gurdwara has been there since long. Tales of merchants’ sea travels between Gujarat and Muscat, and also the Salalah port in Oman, are legendary. During the Sultan’s visit, a proposal to retrace the maritime voyage of such a ship — to be recreated, from the Mandvi port in Gujarat to Muscat in 2025-26 — was welcomed.

Ties between Oman and India are special and unique in many ways. Both countries profess peaceful coexistence and thus enjoy tremendous goodwill in the global community. Oman was invited as a guest nation during India’s G20 presidency this year. Both countries have similar interests and concerns and have almost no areas of conflict or divergence. Oman offers India a gateway to West Asia. For Oman, India is a very important partner and friend, especially in the security sphere. With the people on both sides having strong associations, the Sultan’s visit was also an occasion to reconnect with the roots of the Omani royal family in India.

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