General Manoj Mukund Naravane will be the first Indian army chief to visit Saudi Arabia, in a historic tour that begins on Sunday, and which involves the strengthening of ties between New Delhi and the Gulf Kingdom. The Indian army chief plans to divide his four-day trip between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The visit can be seen as a testimony to New Delhi's commitment to strengthening ties between India and the Gulf countries. While Naravane's visit to Saudi Arabia is the first of its kind, his visit to the UAE comes shortly after Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar's visit to Bahrain and the UAE on 24 and 26 November.
Naravane will meet his counterparts in Riyadh and address the Saudi National Defence College before heading to Abu Dhabi. The visit comes at a time when diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, a traditional ally, have deteriorated considerably. He will subsequently travel to the United Arab Emirates, whose defence links with India have been extended in recent years.
It is necessary to understand the context in which this visit takes place. Last week India criticised the Saudi-led Islamic Cooperation Organisation (OIC) for passing a motion asking India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi to rescind his government's decision to end the semi-autonomous status of the Kashmir region. New Delhi also criticised Riyadh for issuing a ticket to commemorate its presidency of the G20. The banknote featured a map of the world where the regions of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh did not appear as part of India.
This tour is seen as part of India's outreach to West Asia, which New Delhi considers part of its area of influence. This outreach work has significantly expanded defence and security cooperation, particularly in the fight against terrorism, in recent years.
The aim of this visit is to normalise the relations of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan with Israel and Iran's efforts to position itself as a key player in Western Asia. India has welcomed the normalisation of ties between Arab states, saying that such steps are in line with its efforts to support peace and development in Western Asia.
Likewise, the increase in ties between India and the Gulf countries also occurs amid a cooling of ties between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. In August Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, expressed his discontent with Saudi Arabia, which is considered a strong ally of Pakistan, for not having convened a special meeting of the Islamic Cooperation Organisation (OIC) on the Kashmir issue.
In response, Saudi Arabia recently demanded early repayment of a $3 billion loan granted to Pakistan in 2018. Pakistan's prime minister, Imran Khan, then attempted to forge a new grouping of Islamic countries with Turkey and Malaysia, a measure that further annoyed Riyadh.
Naravane's trip, therefore, is intended to complete the visit to Bahrain at the end of last month of his Indian Foreign Minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.