Friday, December 24, 2010

India and the Sultanate of Oman - A timeline of relations

Burgeoning relations with our friendly neighbour Oman.

The people of India and Oman have had historical relations from well before the Indus Valley civilisation[1]. In 1766, the Omani Ruler Imam Ahmad bin Said was helped by the Mughal emperor Shah Alam in his war against pirates hampering trade between Mangalore and Oman[2]. These relations were solidified by the signing of a treaty. Till India became independent, military and economic support to the Sultanate of Oman was provided by the British from India. Oman's complete requirement of arms and ammunition as well as all military necessities were supplied from Indian Ordnance Factories, free of cost[3].

Indians (primarily of Sindhi and Gujarati origin) have resided in Oman since the 1500’s. Today, Khimji Ramdas, a famous Omani of Indian origin is the owner of one of the largest business houses in Oman and perhaps the GCC. In fact Bhairamji Khimji is the first non-muslim citizen to be honoured with the title of Sheikh. Hindu temples have been in Oman since the 1700's showing a secular, multicultural and vibrant Omani society. 

It also helps to know that many senior Omani government officials including the Sultan have visited India for education. His Majesty Taimur bin Faisal after his abdication in 1932 had lived mostly in India and is buried in Bombay (now Mumbai). His son Sultan Said bin Taimur (The current sultan’s father) had been educated in a school in Ajmer, India[4] and the current ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said has been educated for a short time in Pune, India[5]. A close advisor (Al Zawawi) to His Majesty also spent some of his schooling time in a Jesuit school in Bombay[6].

The strength of our relations today is much related to the sea trade, as Oman is the first Arabian country when sailing out of the western shores of India. 

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Muscat in 1985 for the celebrations to mark the 15th anniversary of Sultan Qaboos’s accession and initiated the process of regular high level contacts with Oman. The Omani ruler shared with Gandhi his security pre-occupations. As a result of this, Indian Medical personnel were deputed for 2 years into the Omani armed forces and later this expanded to communications and engineering units being deputed as and when needed[7]
Rajiv Gandhi meeting Sultan Qaboos in 1985. Copyrights with Indian Embassy Muscat

Prime Minister Shri PV Narasimha Rao visited Oman in June 1993. The landmark visit launched a new era in bilateral relations between the two countries, especially in the economic sphere. During the visit, a number of joint initiatives were launched and the setting up of an India-Oman Joint Commission at Ministerial level was agreed upon[8]. Senior officials in India's Foreign Ministry say that India and Oman have had a "special relationship" since Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao's visit to the sultanate in 1993. It was during this visit that the agreement to cooperate in the hydrocarbon and fertilizer sectors was reached[9].  Oman is one of the few countries in the region that have made it a policy to abstain from voting whenever a vote on Kashmir is taken at international forums such as the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC). In fact Oman was the only Muslim state not to fully back (by abstaining from vote) Pakistan in the 1971 war debate at the UN. 

Visit of Prime Minister Shri Narasimha Rao to Oman in June 1993 (Copyrights to Indian Embassy Muscat)

In 1998, at the backdrop of Indian nuclear tests, Vajpayee paid his first visit to Oman. (Shown in the 2 pictures below). During this visit it is said that Oman “expressed full understanding” to India’s position on nuclear weapons. 

Today, relations have expanded far beyond economic relations and the historic relations have now transformed itself into a strategic relationship. Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Oman in 2006 resulted in the creation of a joint Oman India military committee, which would ultimately pave the way for Indian military equipment to be sold to Oman. The fruits of this effort can be seen today as Oman has decided to purchase the INSAS rifle, which will become the main assault rifle of the Omani soldier[10]. Oman has also purchased 3 tugboats from India and Oman has expressed its interest for purchase of more naval vessels from India[11]

Variants of the INSAS Rifle

Omani soldiers and sailors have been training in India for many years. Up until 2008, relations were driven primarily between the navies of the 2 nations. For example When an Indian ship encountered a problem off the northern part of Yemen, its officers were flown immediately to Muscat and from there to India[12]. However defence cooperation has expanded between the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO), who recently held their first ever annual air exercise code named ‘Eastern Bridge’ at Thumrait Air force base. The focus of this was anti-piracy and building relationships. One cannot also miss the fact that the terrain of Oman is highly similar to that of Balochistan province of Pakistan. Experience in Oman can prove to be invaluable. Next year, both countries will hold their biggest ever military exercise in India that will involve units from the army, navy and coast guard of both countries[13]

A RAFO Jaguar leads a pair of IAF Jaguars over Oman (Courtesy: IAF via Bharat Rakshak)

The increase in the number of defence exercises as well as the size and complexity between the two countries are due to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Oman in November 2008 to sign a defence pact[14]. Since then there has been a number of naval exercises between the 2 navies. 

The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh with the Sultan of Oman, HM Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al-Said, in Muscat on November 9, 2008. P D Photo by B M Meena (PTI)
Oman and India have shared similar views on regional political and security issues. For example both agree that they would like to see a stable Afghanistan and the leadership of both countries have expressed concern over fundamentalism in the region during Vajpayee’s visit to Oman in 1998. Defence Minister AK Anthony during a visit to Oman in May said “we have a common aim in Afghanistan and that is to ensure that it does not become a base of safe haven for terrorists again. We want a stable, moderate, unified and democratic Afghanistan”[15]. Oman has been a major NATO logistics base for Af-Pak (Afghanistan/Pakistan) operations, as cargo is airlifted to Afghanistan on a daily basis via Muscat.

Post Mumbai attacks of 2008, the Omani foreign minister was the first from any of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Countries) to visit India and had called for “Pakistan to move beyond assurances to firm action against the perpetrators of the attacks”. The foreign minister of Oman His Exellency Yusuf bin Allawi bin Abdullah also told his counterpart “there could be no excuse for not dismantling the infrastructure of terrorism across the Indian border”[16].

Subsequent investigations found that the Pakistani based terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba had a cell in Muscat. This cell was involved in financing terror operations in India, in particular the Bangalore blasts in 2008. The Omani authorities had already arrested many of this cell for plotting attacks inside Oman. The Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) was able to locate one of the prime suspects of the Bangalore attacks named Sarfraz Nawaz in Muscat who was under arrest by the Royal Omani Police (ROP) for being involved with the Lashkar cell. Oman had extradited Nawaz secretly to India in order to face trial and help Indian investigators. Nawaz’s extradition proved to be a treasure of information on the lashkar’s finance network in the Middle East.  The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the ROP had also been working together on this case. The Home ministry have gone on record to say “Oman’s responses are a model for smooth trans-national cooperation that are needed to counter the threat (of terrorism)”[17].

The joint investigation found that an Omani national named Ali Abdul Aziz Al Hooti was involved in financing the Bangalore blasts but more critically he may have been deeply involved in the Mumbai attacks. Investigators found that Al Hooti (who has been sentenced for life in Oman) had visited Mumbai days before the attack took place. Police in Oman have relayed to their Indian counterparts that he remained in close contact with Lashkar commanders in Pakistan and had direct links with key suspects of the Mumbai attacks[18].  The Intelligence Bureau has contacted the Omani authorities in order to extradite Al Hooti to India, and it is said that talks are on between the governments[19]. This will be a further test to cooperation between the 2 countries.

The Future

Apart from expanding cooperation in the defence, security and economic areas, India looks to expand cooperation in peaceful civilian nuclear energy with the Sultanate of Oman. This was mentioned to Omani officials by the then Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Shashi Tharoor[20]. Another area where India would like to get involved in is GCC wide construction of a rail network. We can also look forward to the signing of the Oman India Joint Investment fund which will have its headquarters in Mumbai. This fund which will have initial fund of $100million will have the option to be upgraded to $1.5 billion, which will be used to fund infrastructure projects in both countries. A Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between India and the GCC appear to be on the cards, however these have been bogged down to differences with Saudi Arabia. 
The relationship between both countries has come along way since contacts were first made by the Indus valley civilisation. Today the strength of relationship is due to the vision of the Sultan of Oman His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said and successive Indian government officials.

[4]  Peterson, John E.. Oman in the Twentieth Century. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1978
[6] Gulf States Newsletter GSN 875 – Al Zawawi Group
[7] Oman and the World, Joseph A Kechchian. – RAND Corporation

1 comment:

  1. great post.
    provides good insight for Indians in Middle East.