India-Saudi Arabia Defense Ties Blossom Even as India refuses to join the U.S.-led sanctions regime on Iran, New Delhi is simultaneously cementing ties with Tehranâ€™s long-standing rival, Saudi Arabia. Last month saw the first-ever visit by an Indian defense minister to the kingdom in a move that signals as much New Delhiâ€™s willingness to emerge as a net provider of security to Saudi Arabia as Riyadhâ€™s desire to look beyond Pakistan for its security needs. At a deeper level, the visit underscored the fact that the Gulf Cooperation Council â€” of which Saudi Arabia is the largest constituent â€” and India now view each other as indispensable enough not to let the absence of a formal security agreement get in the way of building broad-spectrum ties. Indiaâ€™s engagement with Saudi Arabia follows the classic paradigm of economic ties building up to a critical mass that subsequently catalyzes a defense dialogue. Saudi Arabia is Indiaâ€™s biggest supplier of oil â€” Iran comes in at second place â€” and hosts as many as 3 million Indian expatriates on its soil. Ever since King Abdullahâ€™s visit to Delhi in 2006 and his inauguration of a â€œlook eastâ€ policy for Saudi Arabia, bilateral trade has been on the rise, touching $26 billion this year. For New Delhi, Saudi Arabia has now come to represent a key focal point at one end of the Indian Ocean, where India sees itself as a net provider of security intended to keep energy and other trade flows from being interrupted. Importantly, Saudi Arabia now seems to acknoweldge Indiaâ€™s regional security role, as evidenced by the kingdomâ€™s acceptance of Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antonyâ€™s proposal to carry out hydrographic surveys off the Saudi coastline. Such surveys, which facilitate the operation of submarines, had until now been outsourced only to the United States. Indiaâ€™s involvement is indicative of a level of trust between the Indian and Saudi security establishments that has blossomed even in the absence of a specific agreement. That informal arrangement is now set to change, however: Antonyâ€™s discussions with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Salman, resulted in the formation of a joint committee to work out a road map for defense cooperation that is expected to culminate in a bilateral agreement. One of the areas that the panel will take up on an urgent basis is the establishment with Indian assistance of a mountain-warfare school in Saudi Arabia.Antony noted during the visit, â€œIndia and Saudi Arabia . . . have in the last decade enhanced their interaction, with their forces holding joint training exercise, particularly in counterinsurgency and mountain warfare technique.â€ Such exchanges will now be institutionalized under an umbrella defense agreement, which in all likelihood will be signed during Prince Salmanâ€™s reciprocal visit to India later this year. Accessing Indian expertise in mountain warfare is of particular significance to the Saudis, who face insurgent threats in the highlands bordering Yemen. Also on the agenda is joint training in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. India is looking to increase Saudi participation in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, a 33-member grouping that seeks to provide a framework for an Indian-led security architecture in the Indian Ocean. One of the prime objectives of naval interaction will be to secure the northern Indian Ocean from nonstate actors such as pirates. All this taken together, if officials in Delhi are to be believed, sets the stage for a future scenario in which the Saudis explore alternatives to their existing ties to the Pakistani security establishment, increasingly seen as at war with itself and somewhat less reliable than in the past for Saudi needs. According to Antony, the joint committee will also seek â€œto explore the possibility of working together in the area of defense production.â€ Toward this goal there will apparently be a slew of reciprocal visits to each otherâ€™s facilities in the course of 2012. The speed at which the two countries move in this arena may serve as an indicator for the sustainability of the new security ties. Any coproduction initiatives in the defense sector must also be understood in the context of the larger bilateral investment initiatives India and Saudi Arabia have been working on since Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singhâ€™s visit in 2010. This maturing bilateral economic partnership is also finding traction in the nuclear domain, as the two sides may soon sign a bilateral treaty on civil nuclear cooperation. Indiaâ€™s engagement would help quiet fears among some international observers that the Saudi nuclear energy program is a cover for acquiring a weapons capability facilitated by Pakistani specialists. And in practical terms, Indiaâ€™s tremendous expertise in nuclear-related services will serve to enhance trade as well. Though previously scheduled, Antonyâ€™s visit came in the midst of rising regional tensions over Iran, serving to highlight the value India attaches to the balance-of-interests approach and the positive reception this attitude is finding even in the fractious Middle East. Moreover, Indiaâ€™s vote in the U.N. Security Council in favor of the ultimately vetoed resolution against Syria signaled to the Saudis that India will seek to accommodate the interests of both sides of any Shiite-Sunni conflict, thereby reflecting the makeup of Indiaâ€™s own large Muslim minority. Ultimately, India sees a geopolitical struggle in the Middle East based on sectarian lines as having little to offer for the countries of the region or indeed for those who depend on it for their energy security. Indeed, it is just such a sectarian conflict New Delhi is trying to avoid through its engagement with Riyadh.