India-Oman engagements

The Sultanate of Oman is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and is well-known for its open market policies and an investor-friendly regime. Owing to its strategic location of being in the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula, the country has enjoyed a historical significance in global maritime trade since the ancient times.

Oman has a rich maritime history with evidences in historical discourses dating back to the first century AD when Yalainous, the Roman historian is believed to have mentioned Omana, now Oman. It was known as the land of the Frankincense trade through its various sites across the Dhofar region. Oman also served as a gateway for the Indian and Chinese merchants who travelled on the ancient Silk Route to the European markets and to other parts of the Arab world. India’s relations with Oman have evolved over the centuries both in terms of geo-economic relations as well as for geo-economic ties.

In recent years, India and Oman have witnessed a strengthening bilateral trade, increase in investment flows and a strategic cooperation based on mutual necessities. Oman’s export to India has increased from US$219 million in 2005 to US$1537 million in 2014; while its imports from India has seen a trajectory of growth from US$399 million to US$1266 million during the same period (see Figure 1).

Moreover, the two countries have entered into bilateral agreements on several geo-economic as well as geo-strategic issues. For instance, some of the geo-economic agreements include Agreement on Economic, Trade and Technical Cooperation, Agreement on Avoidance of Double Taxation, and Promotion and Protection of Bilateral Investments, among others; while the major geo-strategic ones include Air Services Agreement; Extradition Treaty; Treaty of Friendship; Commerce and Navigation; MoU on Joint Cooperation for Combating Crime; and MoU on Defence Cooperation.

With increasing trade and economic cooperation, the development of bilateral strategic ties is also imperative. There are at least three areas where the strengths of bilateral economic and cultural relations can be leveraged to gain mutual geo-strategic benefits.

Deepwater gas pipeline

The first and foremost geo-strategically significant aspect is the US$4.5 billion Middle East to India Deepwater Pipeline project proposed by South Asia Gas Enterprise (SAGE). This pipeline begins from Chabahar (Iran) and Ra’s Al Jifan (Oman) and traverses through the deep waters of the Arabian Sea to Porbandar (India).

This pipeline which is estimated to be approximately 1300 km is a strategic opportunity for both Oman and the energy-deficient India, as it is estimated to supply 1.1 billion standard cubic feet per day of gas. Moreover, for India it seems to be an early alternative to the two others viz. Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline whose negotiations is still in chaos, and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI), whose negotiations are yet to bring the desired benefits for the stakeholders.

However, the SAGE pipeline also went into legal-commercial issues early this year. Though this deepwater pipeline was supposed to be one that does not include Pakistan, and was therefore geopolitically more feasible for India, yet the extension of Pakistan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) has caused difficult conditions for its negotiations. As per the 1982 United Nations Conventions on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a country’s EEZ would lie from the extent of its territorial sea to up to 200 nautical miles (nm). By the definition of 200 nm, the SAGE pipeline did not come under the EEZ of Pakistan. However, in the month of March this year, UNCLOS extended the extent of Pakistan’s continental shelf (and therefore its EEZ) by 150 nm, thus making it 350 nm now. With this extension, the pipeline now comes under the influence of the EEZ of Pakistan. As per UNCLOS, every country has the control over the EEZ seabed, and exploration rights over the EEZ waters. Therefore, it is becoming an imminent necessity for both India and Oman to resolve the same within the legal-commercial framework.

Defence cooperation

Secondly, the defence cooperation is another key geo-strategic area. The defence cooperation between India and Oman is not a recent phenomenon-the two countries have been continuously engaging on a bilateral level to enhance it. It was as early in the year 1972 that the two countries signed a military protocol through which the Indian Navy was deployed in Oman for three years. In 1985, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on military cooperation was signed. One of the important areas of defence cooperation between India and Oman is joint naval exercises which have been going on since 1993.

Further, MoU aimed at strengthening defence cooperation was also signed in the year 2005 and the framework for Joint Military Cooperation was established in the year 2006. In the year 2009, the Indian Air Force and the Royal Air Force of Oman conducted joint military exercises, to strengthen bilateral defence cooperation mechanisms. In 2013 i.e. 20 years after the beginning of the joint naval exercises, Indian Navy and the Royal Omani Navy carried out a biennial naval exercise named as ‘Naseem Al Bahr’ off the coast of Oman in the North Arabian Sea.

The participation from the Indian side included fleets like INS Mysore, INS Tarkash, INS Tabar and INS Aditya; while those from the Omani side comprised of the Royal Omani Navy Vessels (RONV) like RONV Al Muazzar, RONV Al Mussandam, RNOV Temsah, among others. Such exercises have led to knowledge sharing and capacity building at various levels in areas such as ports and logistics management.

Furthermore, early this year, joint training program was held for army units from India and Oman in the rugged terrains of Jebel Akhdar to improve efficiency and enhance coordination between the two friendly countries. Also, India maintains that the Port of Salalah is also playing a pivotal role in the multilateral fight against piracy. Thus, defence cooperation would be helpful in mutual capacity building and taking the friendly relations between the two countries to a new height.

Indian Ocean Rim

Finally, the third significant geo-strategic area of cooperation is the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). IORA has a vast geographical coverage and includes 20 countries spread across Africa, Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. These include Australia, Bangladesh, Comoros, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Seychelles, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Yemen. Approximately 30 per cent of the world trade happens through Indian Ocean, with its major sailing points being the Suez Canal and the Straits of Malacca.

The regional cooperation among countries, especially India’s cooperation mechanisms with the countries of the Gulf, most importantly Oman, will have both geo-economic and geo-strategic impact on the regional geopolitical architecture. The countries of the IORA already have their memberships or are negotiating membership in several regional congregations including ASEAN, GCC, SAARC, BIMSTEC, SADC, TPP and RCEP.

Oman has been an active participant in the IORA and its significant geo-strategic contributions could be in the areas of information dissemination on sea transport, facilitate shipping movements, developing a trans-regional transportation hub, establishing close diplomatic links with member countries, creating avenues for mutual cooperation in maritime issues, leveraging cultural diplomacy (e.g. the ‘Jewel of Muscat’) for boosting regional and bilateral geo-strategic collaborations, and playing a key role in cross-cutting issues of trade and geopolitics (e.g. climate change mitigation and adaptation through knowledge sharing).

It therefore requires urgent attention to utilize the potential of mutual geo-strategic cooperation between India and Oman for maintaining regional stability, ensuring energy security, and above all, for strengthening bilateral geo-economic cooperation as well.

(The author teaches at the College of Commerce and Business Administration, Dhofar University, Salalah, Sultanate of Oman.)