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Fence job for fence-sitter

New Delhi, Oct. 8: India has been approached to construct a border fence between Oman and Yemen in the first international offer for such a strategic project.

CPWD and Engineering Projects India Ltd, both public sector units, have been shortlisted after Oman made the request to the external affairs ministry to help build the 288km fence. Both agencies have since made presentations.

In its presentation last month to Omani officials, the CPWD highlighted its border projects in India. That included building fences, installing lights and carrying out electrification of barbed wires along the east and west frontiers.

“We were told the Oman government wants a neutral agency (outside Oman and Yemen) to avoid controversy. That’s why India was approached,” said a senior official of the urban development ministry, which oversees the CPWD.

Other officials said Oman had first approached Saudi Arabia, which recently completed work along its border with Yemen in the south, but a deal could not be reached.

“If we are selected for the job, it will not be our first international assignment but definitely the first time we will construct an international border fence,” CPWD director-general Sushil Mittal said.

Experts believe the fence is more than a border fortification. It is part of Oman’s efforts to forestall a Tahrir Square-like uprising from restive Yemen, whose dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh was overthrown after 33 years in Arab Spring, the series of revolutions that began in the Gulf last year.

“The (Omani) sultanate is jittery about revolutionary ideas spilling over from across the border,” said A.K. Pasha of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Oman is one of India’s most trusted Gulf allies, and that explains why New Delhi, despite being a champion of democracy, is supporting the Omani sultanate. “We not only share political relations but also have security and defence ties with the sultanate,” said Pasha.

The border Oman shares with Yemen is mostly in south Yemen. Pasha added that till 1990, before Yemen’s unification, erstwhile “South Yemen” was the only Marxist state in the Gulf.

Oman has always been wary of that part of Yemen. “Oman believed the Popular Front for Liberation of Oman (a secessionist group) was inspired by South Yemen’s Marxist government. It almost overthrew the sultanate till the revolution was reined in 1975 with help from neighbouring countries,” Pasha said.

That same tribes live on both sides of the porous border has added to the tension, prompting Oman to plan the fence and seek India’s assistance.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had visited Oman in 2008, followed by commerce minister Anand Sharma and Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia two years later. In 2004, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said came to Delhi to receive the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding.

If the CPWD bags the Oman deal, it will come at a time the agency is building Afghanistan’s new parliament. The construction began in 2005 and was to be finished by this December but the volatile security situation forced the agency to reduce staff in Kabul. The tentative deadline now is March.