India, Saudi naval drill soon, despite tension in Gulf

Navies of India and Saudi Arabia to hold joint exercise, amid escalating tension between Iran and United States’ allies in Persian Gulf region

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to visit Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. PTI Photo

India is set to go ahead to hold its first-ever joint naval exercise with Saudi Arabia soon – notwithstanding heightened tension in and around Persian Gulf region.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to visit Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. He is expected to discuss with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia ways to step up bilateral defence cooperation.

T S Tirumurti, Secretary at the Ministry of External Affairs, said that the navies of India and Saudi Arabia would hold the first joint exercise either towards the end of December 2019 or in the beginning of January 2020. “Needless to say this is a very significant development,” he said, briefing journalists on Prime Minister's forthcoming visit to Saudi Arabia.

India is going to hold the inaugural naval exercise with Saudi Arabia at a time when the tension in and around the Persian Gulf escalated since the US re-imposed the sanctions on Iran on November 4, 2018. President Donald Trump's Administration had earlier last year decided to withdraw from the deal, which the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (US, China, France, UK and Russia), Germany and European Union had inked with Tehran in 2015 to end the row over the controversial nuclear programme of the Islamic Republic.

Trump Administration deployed additional military assets in the Persian Gulf in May this year, citing intelligence reports suggesting that Iran and its proxies might target the US interests and allies in the region and could even choke the Strait of Hormuz. With almost one-third of the world’s liquefied natural gas and almost 25% of total global oil consumption passing through it, the narrow Strait of Hormuz is a highly important strategic route for international trade.

The decades-old feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia, an ally of the US, also escalated over the past few months – particularly after four commercial ships, including two Saudi Aramco oil tankers, were damaged in an alleged “sabotage attack” near the port of Fujairah (United Arab Emirates) in the Gulf of Oman on May 12. The US and Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for the attack. Tehran, however, rubbished the allegation by Washington D.C. and Riyadh.

Riyadh also accuses Tehran of backing Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who on May 14 carried out multiple drone attacks on an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia. Tension between Riyadh and Tehran further escalated in the wake of yet another drone attack on oil-processing facilities of Saudi Arabia’s state-owned Saudi Aramco company at Abqaiq and Khurais in the kingdom on September 14.

Iran has long been one of the largest crude oil suppliers to India. But after the US re-imposed sanctions on Iran, New Delhi had to stop importing oil from the Islamic Republic. It did result in unease in India’s relations with Iran.

Modi, however, had a cordial meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sideline of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in the last week of September.

Though India's move to hold the first naval exercise with Saudi Arabia is likely to raise the hackles of Iran, New Delhi seems set to go ahead.

Saudi Arabia joined the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC), which the US set up last month to counter the threat from Iran and to ensure freedom of navigation and safe passage through the Gulf.

Modi hosted Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in New Delhi in February this year when both leaders agreed that New Delhi and Riyadh should “work together with other Indian Ocean Rim Countries for enhancing maritime security, vital for the security and prosperity of both countries and safe passage for international trade”.

India and Saudi Arabia inked a Memorandum of Understanding for defence Cooperation during the visit of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to India in February 2014 as the then Crown Prince. India hosts military officials of Saudi Arabia for training.

India and Saudi Arabia are also looking at closer cooperation in the area of defence industries. A delegation of Saudi General Authority of Military Industry visited New Delhi a few months back and met representatives of the defence industry of India. The representatives of India's defence companies also later visited Saudi Arabia, said Tirumurti.

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