Al-Mohed Al-Hindi 2021: Strategic Options for Pakistan and India

Trading together creates a partnership but fighting together creates brotherhood. This is not an effort to romanticise war, but bonds made on the battlefield often last longer. During peacetime, it means defence cooperation like war games, joint drills, and joint research. India has recently struck a defence partnership with a new military companion. On August 9, 2021, Indian warship INS Kochi in Saudi Arabia took part in its first-ever naval exercise between the two nations. The drills are called Al-Mohed Al-Hindi 2021. They were off to a great start at the Jubail Port. The Indian warship was welcomed by the royal Saudi naval forces, the border guards and the officials of the Indian embassy. The exercise included several manoeuvres, both shore and sea-based. However, it was not a grand war game with massive armadas.

For years, India’s relations with Saudi Arabia have remained pinned on energy. Pretty straightforwardly, Riyadh produces oil, and India needs oil. But the oil tap will soon run out. Therefore, Saudi Arabia is planning for its future – a future without oil barrels, which is part of the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s (MBS) Vision 2030. He wants to diversify the economy by investing in smart cities and building green energy plants, basically a complete revamp. Where does that leave India and Pakistan? With a lot of opportunities. Indian investors are pumping money into Saudi Arabia, while Pakistan is looking for foreign investment within its territory and CPEC-attached business city in Gwadar.

In 2019, the Saudi Arabia envoy called India, a strategic partner of vision 2030­. Weighing on the hybrid relationship, India can help Saudi Arabia in public services, skill development and job creation. On the other hand, Saudi oil giants can find new frontiers in India, especially when the oil tap runs out back home. A big part of this hybrid relationship is defence. In December 2020, India’s Army Chief General M. M. Naravne visited Riyadh and met with top Saudi generals. The dialogue was all about expanding defence ties, and the latest military drill is a result of that.

On August 9, 2021, India unveiled a maritime roadmap at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

Considering the expanding defence relations, a little bit more deliberation about INS Kochi is needed. India has deployed the ship in West Asia. It is built by Indian engineers with Indian technology. This Kolkata-class stealth guided-missile destroyer is a flagship of the Indian Navy. Its primary mission is the joint drill, but a bit of show-off never hurts. It is a well-known fact that Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest arms buyers globally, and they consistently top the list. So, India possibly wants to showcase its shipbuilding skills to tap the Saudi Arabian market, in the process.

On August 9, 2021, India unveiled a maritime roadmap at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). How does this voyage fit in? To answer this, one must look at INS Kochi’s journey. Its first stop was United Arab Emirates (UAE), where Indian and Emirati navies conducted a joint drill, Zayed Talwar 2021. India deployed INS Kochi and two Sea King helicopters while the UAE deployed a guided-missile corvette. These are troubled waters, as just a week before this naval drill, drones attacked an Israeli ship in this area. Most of the evidence points to Iran. This is the backdrop of India’s voyage: the boiling Persian Gulf and a shadow war spiralling out of control.

The situation above highlights that India is talking seriously about its maritime responsibility, which it stated in the Indian Maritime Security Strategy (IMSS-2015) and recent declaration of being the “Net Security Provider” in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi has good relations with Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia, probably the only country currently within the region that can say so.  But these relations are de-hyphenated as India has refused to take sides in the West Asian conflicts, not practically, though. According to Indian statements, it is all about securing trade routes (sea lines of communications-SLOC’s) upholding maritime laws. This gives New Delhi a wiggle room and bilateral ties like a partnership with Saudi Arabia. It may be a final step in the constantly maturing relationship, but God knows what lies ahead in these bilateral relations, i.e., between Saudi Arabia and India.

The situation above highlights that India is talking seriously about its maritime responsibility, which it stated in the Indian Maritime Security Strategy (IMSS-2015) and recent declaration of being the “Net Security Provider” in the Indian Ocean.

This journey has seen multiple recalibrations, especially from Saudi Arabia. For decades, the Kingdom’s number one partner has been Pakistan. Exchange of troops and weapons was a common exercise which was broad military cooperation and which continued till 2017. Pakistan’s then Army Chief Raheel Shareef was appointed to lead an Islamic Anti-Terror Coalition. This group had 39 nations and was headquartered in Saudi Arabia. To this point, all seemed well between Islamabad and Riyadh. In 2019, crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) offered his private jet to Prime Minister Imran Khan. He stated that his guest could not leave on a commercial flight. Imran Khan was headed to New York for the UN General Assembly’s (UNGA’s) annual session. However, this was the point where the tables turned. Imran Khan spoke his heart out for Kashmiris and against the atrocious Indian siege in the wake of revoking article 370 to end Indian-held Kashmir’s special status. MBS was not impressed, and while returning from the UN, the crown prince allegedly ordered his plane back to New York. In the situation, the Pakistan Prime Minister ended up flying commercial to Islamabad after all.

Things went downhill from there. Saudi Arabia forced Pakistan to repay a $1 billion loan. At the same time, Saudi Arabia recognised India’s right to make decisions on Kashmir to join New Delhi in condemning global terrorism. This action made Saudi Arabia’s position awkward to invest in the CPEC-led business city and projects. New or changed Saudi Arabia was looking for reliable and trustworthy partners that led Riyadh from Pakistan to India to accomplish its vested interests. As opined earlier, fighting together builds a brotherhood which, apparently, is resulting in the Indian and Saudi partnership.

Trust is needed to combine different militaries, trust that goes beyond selling and buying barrels of oils. The India-Saudi Arabia relationship has reached that stage where the goal is to push on from here. What Pakistan needs at the moment is to revamp its relations and soften its ties with Saudi Arabia. However, brotherhood cannot be created from one side. The CPEC can offer broad business growth not only to Asian countries but to the Arabian Peninsula and Africa too. It is not a game of being friends with the enemy of enemies. In fact, besides rapid response, Pakistan requires considering the Maritime Doctrine of Pakistan (MDP-2018) as the first step towards the Maritime Security Strategy of Pakistan (MSSP). The utmost requirement is strategic reorientation that demands regional peace as Pakistan endorses “Preserving Freedom of Seas” rather than creating diplomatic dilemmas.

Sehrish Qayyum

Dr. Sehrish Qayyum is Academic Advisor at Pakistan Navy War College (PNWC), Naval Complex. She is SDPI’s Research Grantee for the domain of ‘Counter Violent Extremism’ (2020-2021). Formerly she has served in UNDP, Democratic Governance Unit (2015-2019).

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