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Royal welcome for ice-breaker visit

New Delhi, Feb. 15: As defence minister A.K. Antony’s Brazil-made Embraer Legacy jet flew over the Arabian Sea on Monday afternoon, the captain relayed a message to his VIP passenger: The King of Saudi Arabia invites you to the palace of the House of Saud in Riyadh.

Strangely enough, at a time India-Iran ties are being questioned by Israel after the attack on its diplomat in Delhi, the defence minister’s pre-scheduled visit to Saudi Arabia is likely to have a marked bearing on India-West Asia relations.

India and Iran, which also used military hardware of Soviet vintage, have had many years of defence ties but those have been waning in the past five years. India-Saudi Arabia defence relations have been practically non-existent. “But now the foundations have been laid and things are going to change very fast,” a defence ministry official said after Antony returned last night.

Antony is the first Indian defence minister to have visited Saudi Arabia at the head of an official delegation. As an ice-breaker event, it was expected to be important. But even by those standards, the exceptional invite from King Abdullah — that was not on the defence minister’s schedule — carried with it an unstated message from Riyadh to New Delhi.

In decoding that message, defence ministry officials are finding that India has just found an opportunity to open its door to the Arab world wider. But New Delhi has to walk with tiptoes into the politics and the tumult that cuts an arc from Pakistan to the Mediterranean or get sucked into volatile environments with immediate impacts on both its diaspora and its energy demands.

Antony was received at the royal palace in Riyadh almost immediately after landing by the king himself. “That was a grand gesture. He had just been through a spinal surgery and standing must have been very difficult for him,” a ministry official who was in the delegation said.

India and Saudi Arabia agreed in the meeting that followed the next day between Antony and his counterpart, Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, that they would set up a Joint Committee on Defence Co-operation (JCDC), which would lead to the signing of a memorandum of understanding.

Antony offered Indian naval hydrographic expertise, which Riyadh immediately accepted, the official said. This means that the Indian Navy may find itself exploring the seabed of the Persian Gulf and the North Arabian Sea in assignments that are largely undertaken by only the US and the Iranians. The Gulf itself is now tension-ridden with Iranian navy in drills at its mouth in the Strait of Hormuz, even threatening to blockade it.

The ministry official said Saudi Arabia was also interested in joint military training. This is a little surprising because significant elements of the Saudi armed forces train in Pakistan and citizens of Pakistani origin even serve in the Saudi military. Riyadh could now be doubting if Pakistan’s military infrastructure, emasculated and often conflicted within itself, can continue to extend the kind of support it has done for much longer, the official said.

The Saudis are also understood to have conveyed to Antony that the quota of oil supplies to India could be expanded if New Delhi and Riyadh worked on it. This assurance apparently came from the king himself. India imports most of its oil from Saudi Arabia. Iran is the next biggest supplier. But largely Shiite Iran — with whom largely Sunni Saudi Arabia has a tenuous relationship at best — is beginning to find that its ties with India are getting severely tested.

Antony was leading high-powered delegation that included the Vice Chief of Army Staff, Lt General S.K. Singh, defence secretary Shashi Kant Sharma, Deputy Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Satish Soni, and Indian ambassador Hamid Ali Rao.