BY: SWATI TORSEKAR
Differentiation between strategic or tactical relations among two countries rests on ascertaining if they cover long term vis-à-vis short term goals. Leveraging mutual strengths do not create strategic relationships if they do not guard mutual interests. Charitable relations wherein the stronger nation showers favors on a weaker nation cannot be termed as strategic. There must be a mutual exchange of gains involving long-term goals encompassing wide political, financial, military, defense, and ideological domains.
While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi endeavors to create a special status for India among Middle Eastern countries, the relations as of now have not emerged as strategic but could be on their way.
Modi’s four-day visit to the Middle East, covering Oman, the UAE, Jordan, and Palestine, appears to have a common thread. Modi’s supporters were ecstatic when Oman provided India with access to the Port of Dukm as a naval base. From a period of lukewarm relations largely mandated by India’s need for oil, the two countries have indeed come a long way. This new development raises a few questions, such as why Oman provided India with access to this facility, how India plans to use it, and what the other pacts of cooperation between the two countries are.
Oman is an absolute monarchy ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said since 1970. The judicial, legislative, and executive bodies all work under his control. In 1970, Sultan Qaboos seized power by dismissing his father. The Sultan belongs to the Ibadhia sect of Islam which is a liberal sect within the other Islamic sects. The sect and the kingdom allow the practice of any religion in its empire. Ibadhis are known for resolving conflicts through dialogue in conducive atmospheres. Sultan Qaboos undertook several reforms after his ascension to power. Women earned voting rights in 1997 and can contest elections. Qaboos has a soft heart and is an exception compared to the contemporary regional rulers. He is often compared to Lee Kwan Yev of Singapore. He took the lead in establishing the Gulf Coordination Committee and was its founding member.
Before Sultan Qaboos’ rule, Oman was an underdeveloped country. The country was severely lackig infrastructure, healthcare and education. Muscat, the capital of Oman, would plunge into darkness after sunset. Its doors were closed to outsiders. The lives of people were not touched with any modernity and allopathic medicines, spectacles, and radios were banned. The crude oil extraction industry had just started and had not yet become a mainstream source of revenue. The people were poor and desperate.
Oman’s southern province, Dhofar, was culturally different from the rest of Oman. The neighboring communist regime in Yemen instigated a rebellion against the king to exploit and effectively exacerbate tensions in the country. Yemen allowed the rebels to run training camps on its soil and supplied them with money and weapons. The communist Yemeni regime also rallied help from other communist countries. China welcomed the rebels into their country and gave them advanced military training. The Chinese experts would also be present on the battleground along with the Dhofar rebels. North Korea provided training for sabotage tactics, and Cuba and the USSR extended money and training.
Oman approached India to combat the rebels but India was in no position to engage in combat against other regimes in the region over the strife. Moreover, the regime of Indira Gandhi was itself firmly aligned with the USSR and, on the grounds of ideology, would not encourage Oman’s request. India paid a heavy price of hobnobbing with the Non-Alignment Movement and under the shadow of the USSR, leading to the isolation of India from Oman for having denied it help to combat the rebels. Until the British occupation, India was a known provider of security to the Middle East but deviated from its position of glory and influence in exchange for its choice to align with the USSR. Oman thus tilted towards Pakistan. The Shah of Iran, Pakistan, Arab states, and Britain helped Sultan Qaboos crush the rebellion. Sultan Qaboos became acutely aware of Oman’s vulnerability and made consistent efforts to reform its political and financial framework. Assistance from various actors culminated in an age of modernization and reform in Oman.
Sultan Qaboos was educated in Britain’s Sandhurst city and was well versed in western lifestyle. He invited a team of British experts and welcomed their recommendations to embark upon a plan to reform Oman politically, socially, and economically. The Civil Action Team from Britain initiated projects of road building, construction of wells, dispensaries, and schools throughout Oman. The modernization picked up speed. Similar to Singapore’s position at the entrance of the Malacca strait, Oman is at the entrance of the Hormuz strait.
Despite India’s denial to help Oman in crushing the communist 1972-76 Dhofar rebellion, the estranged Oman today prefers to enthrone the Indian navy at Dokm, the point of entry to Hormuz.
If Sultan Qaboos faced a communist rebellion in 1972, he also had to combat another rebellion this time initiated by the Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, with the help of 15-20 percent of Sunni Omani citizens in 1994. This occurred shortly after the USSR disintegrated, the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Ibadhi regime of Oman served as a hurdle in the way of the Sunni radical Islamists, with some members who penetrated the upper most layers of the government, and they sought to overturn the rule of Qaboos. The Brotherhood was prominent in Pakistan. Pakistan supported the Brotherhood in the rebellion against Qaboos. Oman arrested 300 citizens during the rebellion. Surprisingly, among them was an erstwhile Omani Ambassador to America, a retired Omani Air Force Commander, and two undersecretaries in Omani government. These arrests moved the needle of suspicion to American interests as well. Qaboos released all the common citizens and gained their confidence but tightened the imprisonment of leaders. Qaboos noted the Pakistani intentions and kept them at bay. He could not rely on Pakistan for its defense any longer. The non-Nehru family member P.V. Narasimha Rao was the PM of India then. The captivity of India’s foreign policy which was married to Nehruvian principles had ended under him in other aspects, allowing a new outlook for India’s relationship with Oman.
Qaboos joined the Gulf Cooperation Committee but had never supported the theme of “Arab Cause” and kept himself away from those who pursued it. He did not support the politics of cartels engaging in oil pricing. He established a diplomatic relationship with Israel, a bold step in the Middle East for a Muslim country. He invited PM Yitzak Rabin and Shimon Peres to Oman and gave them a grand welcome in Muscat. Likewise, Oman’s representative was present at the funeral of Rabin on Qaboos’s orders.
The chapter on Oman cannot be closed without highlighting the emotional ties between Baluchistan, a province in Pakistan, and Oman. Oman has citizens with Baluch origin. Several Baluchi Pakistanis work in Oman on work permits. The province of Makran where the port of Gwadar is seated belongs to Oman and Oman has offered it to India. Nehru refused. Later in 1960, it was purchased by Pakistan. Had Nehru taken control of Makran by accepting the Omani offer, today all three important ports, Chabahar, Gwadar, and Dukm, at the entrance of the Strait of Hormuz, would have been under Indian control, thereby interrupting the Chinese designs of imperialistic expansion. Thirty-five percent of the world’s oil is transported through this strait and many superpowers, including China, are dependent on it for their oil supply.
Since Makran once belonged to Oman, the Baluchi people have been working in the Omani army for many years. Oman continued to recruit the Baluchis until Pakistani Prime Minister Liyakat Ali objected to it. Oman did not take cognizance of the objections and continued to recruit the Baluchis for their army. As late as 2014, 400 Baluchis were recruited by Oman. The army is comprised of 25 percent Baluchis. Thus, Oman has a sympathetic approach to the Baluchi problem, as Oman supports Baluchi independence.
While the history of Oman highlights the reasons behind the long estrangement, Modi was able to bridge the diplomatic divide and bring Oman once again into the fold of Indian friends. Notably, Oman has had military ties with the United States. American ammunition, weapons, and materials, which are to be used by the American air force, are secured in Oman. These ties have seldom been discussed publicly. The use of Dukm by India, which is tied to the US through pacts like the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), introduce large opportunities. In the 1971 war, India first sealed off the Hormuz strait and blocked Pakistan’s access to oil imports through its Karachi port. Pakistan was left with a limited stock of petrol never to be replenished until war continued. This put severe constraints on its army’s movements. Hormuz is thus of utmost importance not just to corner Pakistan but also China, if required.
It is clear that by refusing to be beholden to the Non-Alignment Movement and by pragmatically realigning India with the US to counter China’s geopolitical and military challenge, the doors of the Middle East are slowly opening to Indian interests. Oman is one such support stone. The situation in Oman can be developed into a strategic relationship, revealing long-term opportunities for both countries. It would be grand pleasure to see it happen under Modi’s auspices.
Swati Torsekar is the author of two books, articles in dailies, weeklies and other periodicals. She publishes her blog swatidurbin.blogspot.in in Marathi language on issues pertaining to India’s Foreign Affairs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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