NEW DELHI: “While other Gulf Arabs prefer to get on a camel and go west into the Arab desert, Omanis prefer to be on a boat and drift towards India,” Oman’s deceased Sultan Qaboos bin Said had once observed. This explains depth of Indo-Omani strategic partnership that went from strength to strength under Qaboos nearly five-decade rule.
Most royal families from the Gulf have strong personal connect with India. And Omani Royal family had a special connect. Sultan Qaboos’s grandfather once ruled Oman from India. Qaboos as a student, was taught by Shankar Dayal Sharma, who went on to become the President of India. Sultan Qaboos’s father, an alumnus of Ajmer’s Mayo College, sent his son to study in Pune, where he was former President Shankar Dayal Sharma’s student. He completed a part of his early education from a private institution in Pune.
The Sultan had very fond memories from his student days and that is the reason he has been very generous towards the Indian community and India’s requests for help, a diplomatic source told ET. When PM Narendra Modi visited Muscat in 2018, Sultan Qaboos had sent breakfast for the visiting leader at the hotel prepared at the Palace. Such was his personal connect with India. Earlier when Sharma visited Muscat as the President Qaboos arranged a grand welcome for him.
Qaboos had also played a role in the release of Father Tom Uzhunnalil, the Vatican priest who was abducted in Yemen in March 2016 and released in September 2017. Sultan Qaboos was reportedly in constant touch with parties from Yemen as well as the Indian government during the negotiations. The Sultan has in the past intervened to get other hostages released.
While Indo-Oman ties date back to centuries, Qaboos from the Omani side was the chief architect of Delhi-Muscat partnership in the modern age. Oman that once had controlled from Gwadar to Zanzibar in Eastern Africa is India’s oldest strategic partner in the region. Under Qaboos India and Oman developed a defence partnership with Delhi supplying rifles for the Sultanate’s security.
India and Oman signed a Maritime Transport Agreement during the visit of foreign minister S Jaishankar to the Sultanate last month. The pact – the first with any Gulf country – enables India to expand its footprint in the western Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and east Africa as part of Indo-Pacific vision. Additionally, in a significant development that will have a far-reaching impact on stability in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and India’s interests in the region, the Jaishankar also met his counterparts from Oman and Iran for lunch in Muscat for what can be described as the first trilateral of sorts. Iran-India-Oman are part of Ashgabat agreement that enables India’s footprints in the wider Eurasian region including Central Asia.
Oman, India’s oldest strategic partner in the Gulf, seeks to emerge as a hub for India for eastern Africa and the Indian Ocean Region, furthering New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Oman has allowed India, including its navy, access to its Duqm port, about 550 km south of the capital Muscat. The Port of Duqm SEZ, which is earmarked to be the Indian Ocean’s largest deep-sea port, is where an Indo-Oman joint venture, Sebacic Oman, is undertaking a $1.2 billion project to set up the largest sebacic acid plant in the Middle-East.
An agreement to develop Little India, an integrated tourism complex project in Duqm worth $748 million, has been signed between the two countries. Oman’s sea ports and industrial hubs established along its 1,700 km coast on the Indian Ocean makes it an ideal home for international businesses.
Oman offers four sea ports and an equal number of industry free-zones, all facing the Indian Ocean, and Indian private and public sector companies are increasingly increasing their footfall in the country. These sea ports are supported with airports and warehousing facilities for the benefit of entrepreneurs.
The industrial zones at Oman’s Duqm offer a range of incentives, including 30-year corporate tax exemption, zero customs duty, 100% foreign ownership and full repatriation of profit.
India is among Oman’s top trading partners, with bilateral trade reaching $5 billion in 2018-19. India was the second-largest importer of crude oil from Oman in 2018. There are over 780,000 Indian citizens living in Oman, the second-largest expatriate community in the country.
Investment flows between Oman and India have increased and have been robust, as reflected in numerous joint ventures, established in both countries, with total investment estimated at $7.5 billion. There are over 3,200 Indian enterprises and establishments in Oman and 400 flights a week between the two countries.
Qaboos was not just the King: he is the prime minister, foreign minister, defence minister, finance minister and the commander-in-chief of the Omani armed forces. He remained a popular leader and Oman was among those countries in the world that has not witnessed terror strike. Qaboos’ annual tour across the country resulted in an uninterrupted direct contact between him and his people. In fact the deceased Sultan transformed Sultanate to a modern state and tapped on oil reserves to develop the economy
The hallmark of the deceased Sultan’s global outreach was his ability to mediate between warring sides – USA & Iran; Iran & Saudi Arabia; Yemen & Saudi Arabia. In fact Oman has best of ties with Iran among all Gulf States. Both share the Strait of Hormuz. The historic Geneva Interim Agreement signed between the P5+1 and Iran on 24 November 2013 was a direct result of the contacts facilitated by Qaboos. There are reports that he was till the end involved in mediation between Iran and USA and Tehran and Riyadh. Oman under the Sultan was also engaged in some quiet diplomacy to reduce tensions between Riyadh and Houthis in Yemen as well as between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.