On 14 September, 10 unmanned drones from Yemen caused severe damage to oil facilities in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, north of Riyadh. (Photo: Reuters)
On 14 September, 10 unmanned drones from Yemen caused severe damage to oil facilities in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, north of Riyadh. (Photo: Reuters)

How India can play drone diplomacy

  • Given the Houthi attack on Saudi oil facilities, West Asia urgently needs a peace process. India should take the lead
  • In West Asia, India has an eight million-strong resident community, whose welfare is of paramount importance not only to the Centre but also several state governments

India, Saudi Arabia, Adnoc, Adnoc Drone Attack, Drone Diplomacy, Oil prices, Iran, Mike Pompeo, Narendra Modi, Houthi attack,

In the early hours of 14 September, ten unmanned drones from Yemen caused severe damage to Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in the Eastern Province north of Riyadh. The target: the oil processing plant at Abqaiq and the country’s second-largest oil field at Khurais. As markets opened on 16 September, oil prices went from $59 to $71 per barrel, though they eased later after the US announced it would release its reserves to stabilize prices.

These attacks mark a significant change in the conflict: the Saudis no longer have exclusive command of either the Yemeni or their own air space. The Houthis, a Shia grouping till now viewed as a ragtag militia, have shown themselves capable of launching drones across the Arabian Peninsula without being intercepted, and causing the world’s largest oil producer to curtail half its production for a few days.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has blamed Iran for the attacks, though no convincing evidence has been proffered so far. US President Donald Trump has threatened military action, saying his forces are “locked and ready"; he is only awaiting the Saudi assessment of the attacks before initiating his response. Iran has firmly denied any role but says it is prepared for a “full-fledged" war.

After eight years of confrontations, West Asia has never needed a peace process so desperately.

It makes sense for India to lead this peace initiative: it has the longest, uninterrupted and most substantial ties with all the Gulf countries. It has an established regional standing for its political, economic and technological achievements as also the fact that its conduct in international interaction has consistently been non-hegemonic, non-intrusive and non-prescriptive. It also has the highest stake in regional stability on account of its energy and economic interests. Above all, it has an eight million-strong resident community whose welfare is of paramount importance to the government in Delhi as also several state governments.

Political engagement

In the decade after the Cold War, India’s high growth rates, its increasing demand for the West Asia’s energy resources, and its own economic and technological successes (particularly in information technology), along with the resilience of its democratic system and enduring commitment to multiculturalism (amidst the violence perpetrated by the Al Qaeda and its extremist affiliates), made India a model of all-round achievement, and an attractive political partner for West Asian nations.

During the visit to Riyadh of then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh in January 2001, the Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal got rid of the constraints of the “Pakistan factor" in bilateral ties by pointing out that the kingdom would view relations with India as important in themselves, not to be influenced by its ties with any other country. Again, the assault on Mumbai in November 2008 served to boost the Gulf’s positive view of India. The region’s leaders saw for themselves that this was a “jihadi" attack by extremists indoctrinated and trained by Pakistani state actors. The attack made the Gulf nations anxious to partner India in counterterrorism efforts. Saudi Arabia took the lead in pursuing a “strategic partnership" with India on the basis of expansion of ties in political, security, economic and cultural areas, as set out in the “Riyadh Declaration" in February 2010. The immediate achievement was intelligence-sharing in regard to extremist elements. Other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries also deepened bilateral security cooperation with India.

Partnerships under Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has outdistanced his predecessors in the frequency of his personal interactions with West Asian leaders. In his first term as prime minister, he visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar, and hosted at home the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Again, within four months of his new term as prime minister, he has already visited the UAE and Bahrain.

In every capital, the leaders have made it clear that they see India as their “strategic partner", a status that reflects a high degree of shared perceptions and approaches on security issues. Thus, the 2015 joint statement with the UAE mentions “shared threats to peace, stability and security", and seeks a “shared endeavour" to address these concerns. It refers to the need for the two countries to establish a “close strategic partnership", and calls upon them to “work together to promote (regional) peace, reconciliation and stability". The UAE has also earmarked $75 billion for investment in India’s infrastructure.

Similarly, the joint statement with Saudi Arabia talks of the two countries’ responsibility to promote peace, security and stability in the region. It notes “the close interlinkage of the stability and security of the Gulf region and the Indian sub-continent and the need for maintaining a secure and peaceful environment for the development of the countries of the region". In Tehran, Modi pointed out that India and Iran “share a crucial stake in peace, stability and prosperity" in the region and have shared concerns relating to “instability, radicalism and terror". The two countries agreed to pursue regional logistical connectivity projects and enhance cooperation in defence and security.

The Indo-Saudi joint statement of February 2019 gives substance to the burgeoning “strategic partnership" between the two countries with the process of bilateral dialogue being institutionalized through a Strategic Partnership Council to monitor progress. The Saudi side has enthusiastically accepted there are investment opportunities in India “worth $100 billion".

These interactions have yielded immediate economic benefits. Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. (Adnoc) and Saudi Arabian Oil Co., or Saudi Aramco, plan to invest $22 billion each in the $60-billion oil refinery to be set up at Raigad in Maharashtra. This will be a state-of-the-art refinery, with a capacity of 60 million tonnes per annum, making India a leading player in the global refining sector. Aramco has also announced that it plans to acquire 20% stake in Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL). Under this $15-billion deal, RIL will buy half a million barrels of oil per day from Aramco, thus doubling its present oil purchases from the Saudi oil company.

Other valuable deals are: Adnoc’s decision to store nearly six million barrels of crude in storage tanks in Mangaluru; the Saudi petrochemicals company Sabic looking at a stake in a $4.6-billion petrochemicals plant in Gujarat, and the award of a share in a lucrative offshore exploration contract to ONGC Videsh Ltd in Abu Dhabi.

These robust engagements have benefitted India in the political area as well as evidenced by the muted response of the GCC countries to India’s recent moves relating to Jammu and Kashmir. Saudi Arabia merely called on both India and Pakistan to de-escalate, while the UAE referred to the developments as an “internal matter"; it also conferred on Modi its highest civilian award. The GCC refusal to view Kashmir as a “Muslim" issue has surprised Pakistan, but the Gulf sheikhdoms, in terms of their strategic interests, clearly prioritize engagements with India in the energy, economic and security areas over any sentimental attachment to Pakistani concerns.

West Asian security scenario

India’s bonhomie with West Asian nations has been taking place while the regional security situation has been deteriorating due to two principal contentions: one, the Saudi-Iran confrontation that is being fought through proxy conflicts in Syria and Yemen. Secondly, the Trump administration’s visceral hostility towards Iran.

Following the events of the Arab Spring in 2011, which led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Saudi Arabia saw itself as strategically vulnerable vis-à-vis Iran which, in its view, had expanded its influence across West Asia. The kingdom, to safeguard its interests, confronted Iran in the theatre of its long-term influence, Syria. The kingdom believed that regime-change in Syria would bring a major Arab country back into the political mainstream and restore the regional balance of power vis-à-vis Iran. However, the entry of Russian forces on the side of the government in September 2015 has ensured that there will be no military victory for the rebels.

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia opened another front against Iran, this time in Yemen with which it shares a 1,400-kilometre border. Here it is confronting the Houthis, viewing them as an Iranian surrogate who will consolidate an Iranian presence in the neighbouring state. The war in Yemen has gone on for over four years, has cost the lives of nearly a 100,000 people, and caused a humanitarian disaster affecting millions of Yemenis.

The Syrian and Yemeni conflicts have pulled in several other neighbouring countries which are backing local militia on sectarian basis. Israel, having concerns about the presence of Iranian forces at its border in Syria, has also launched several air attacks on Iranian targets in Syria and even in Iraq. The recent Houthi attack on Saudi oil facilities has taken the conflict to a new, more dangerous level.

The escalating US-Iran confrontation in the Gulf could provide that ignition that could enflame the region. The US first withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran in May 2018 and reinstated sanctions. Since then, tensions between the US and Iran have increased. The US President has claimed that his policy of exerting “maximum pressure" on Iran is to get it back to the negotiating table to finalize a “better" agreement on the nuclear issue. Trump also feels this would effectively address Iran’s “malign" activities in the region. Iran has refused to buckle under pressure and has adopted the approach of “maximum resistance".

US sanctions on Iran have also jeopardized India’s strategic interests: due to concerns relating to US secondary sanctions, international companies have been reluctant to provide equipment and machinery for the Chabahar project, thus stalling both port development, and the proposed road and railway projects across the region.

Shaping the peace initiative

The deteriorating regional security situation urgently calls for a peace process led by India to address the differences between the kingdom and the Islamic Republic by promoting mutual trust and dialogue between the two estranged Islamic neighbours.

At the outset, the two theatres of ongoing conflict—Syria and Yemen—would need to be taken up with the two regional antagonists, particularly to arrange ceasefires and delivery of immediate humanitarian assistance. This daunting challenge could be met through the rival nations accepting non-interference in domestic matters and rejection of references to sectarian divisions, backed by curbs on social media.

The initiative would also simultaneously focus on matters of shared interest for Saudi Arabia and Iran—energy cooperation, food security, combating extremism, cross-sectarian dialogue, and political issues of common concern such as Afghanistan, Palestine, counter-radicalization, etc.

The satisfactory outcome of these first discussions will set the stage to address the more serious issue of shaping a regional security cooperation arrangement. This will bring together all the regional entities and external powers interested in regional security. Their principal concern will be promoting security and stability in Syria and Yemen, alongside institutionalizing platforms for dialogue, promotion of confidence-building measures, and management of crises through unified action to guarantee regional peace.

To promote this dialogue, India could partner with a group of influential nations, such as China, Japan, Russia and the European Union, all of which have substantial ties with the regional players and high stakes in regional stability.

Giving shape to this new security arrangement that will pull the Gulf countries together in an architecture that embraces the principal regional and extra-regional players will be one of the most important and exciting challenges for Indian diplomacy in coming months.

The author is the former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, and holds the Ram Sathe Chair in International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune.

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