New Delhi Pursues Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Riyadh

Indian Defense Minister Ajay Bhatt in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat (PHOTO CREDIT: Mishaal al-Qadir)
Indian Defense Minister Ajay Bhatt in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat (PHOTO CREDIT: Mishaal al-Qadir)

New Delhi Pursues Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Riyadh

Indian Defense Minister Ajay Bhatt in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat (PHOTO CREDIT: Mishaal al-Qadir)
Indian Defense Minister Ajay Bhatt in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat (PHOTO CREDIT: Mishaal al-Qadir)

Indian Defense Minister Ajay Bhatt has expressed India's interest in collaborating with Saudi Arabia on joint defense projects and technology transfers.

Bhatt highlighted the importance of this bilateral defense partnership in the overall strategic relationship between the two countries, stating that it is progressing steadily as part of their defense cooperation efforts.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Bhatt said: “By combining India's 'Make in India' initiative and Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030, we can work together to create joint projects and technology transfer agreements for defense equipment manufacturing.”

“Both nations are also collaborating on new defense technologies,” revealed the minister.

Bhatt, who is heading an Indian delegation to the World Defense Show 2024 in Riyadh, highlighted the cooperation between Indian and Saudi armed forces through the Joint Committee for Defense Cooperation (JCDC).

“Last year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited India, marking significant improvement in relations,” said the minister.

Bhatt also noted collaboration in new defense technologies between India and Saudi Arabia. He mentioned a recent seminar organized by the Indian Embassy in Riyadh, supported by Saudi agencies.

While the Strategic Partnership Council between India and Saudi Arabia aims for long-term cooperation, Bhatt emphasized a growing partnership in defense.

He anticipated continued collaboration, especially in research and development for advanced defense technologies like ammunition, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity.

Bhatt acknowledged India’s efforts to strengthen domestic defense production and Saudi Arabia’s focus on localizing industries.

At the World Defense Show, Bhatt had productive meetings with Saudi officials, expressing gratitude for their hospitality. He highlighted the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Munitions India Limited and its local partner.

The minister highlighted that the defense deals signed reflect the ongoing collaboration between Indian and Saudi companies in defense.

Bhatt noted that his visit to the Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) booth at the defense exhibition in Riyadh was fruitful for future cooperation.

Defense Industry Insights

“In line with our strengthening bilateral ties, Indian firms are keen to showcase their defense products in the Saudi market,” remarked Bhatt.

“With trust between us, the Indian government fully backs these efforts. At the World Defense Show, many Indian companies are participating, accessing Saudi Arabia's defense market.”

“During my visit, I saw top-notch Indian products drawing interest. This platform will boost Indian companies’ visibility,” added the minister.

He stressed that the World Defense Show offers ample opportunities for cooperation, including technology transfer and research.

Collaborative Programs

Bhatt mentioned ongoing joint ground forces exercises in India and regular naval exchanges. He highlighted the importance of reciprocal visits in strengthening ties and exploring new cooperation avenues, citing recent high-level exchanges between Indian and Saudi military leaders.

“In early January 2024, Saudi Navy Commander Admiral Fahd bin Abdullah Al-Ghafili visited India for four days. He interacted with top Indian military leaders and government officials,” mentioned Bhatt.

He noted that the visit positively impacted the Saudi Navy Commander’s engagement with Indian defense firms. He got hands-on experience with Indian training institutes in Kochi and visited the indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant.

“We also have substantial cooperation in medical fields between our armed forces through specialized exchanges,” added Bhatt.

“We aim to keep up this momentum in bilateral defense ties, exploring new avenues in the future,” he affirmed.

Security in the Red Sea Navigation

Speaking about threats in the Red Sea, Bhatt said: “India stands for freedom of navigation in the Red Sea but is concerned about attacks on commercial ships, which disrupt trade and endanger sailors’ lives.”

“India closely watches developments there and has naval ships in the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea, actively supporting commercial vessels and crew,” he added.

Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The late Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, excelled at delivering messages subtly. In private meetings, he spoke more freely than in public statements or interviews. His chief advisor, Fakhri Karim, often joined these discussions.

Luncheons were lavish, showing Talabani's respect for different opinions, though he rarely followed doctors’ advice.

Talabani believed that Iranian leaders were smart and hoped they wouldn’t try to control Baghdad from Tehran, citing the failed attempt to manage Beirut from Damascus.

He noted that Iraq’s independent spirit makes it hard for the country to follow the US, Iran, or Türkiye. Talabani also admitted giving refuge to 80 Iraqi officers who had fought against Iran, after they were targeted by certain groups.

Talabani praised Syria’s late President Hafez al-Assad for his invaluable support, providing accommodation and passports.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Karim revealed he had warned President Bashar al-Assad, on behalf of Talabani, that militants allowed into Iraq to fight US forces might later turn against Syria.

This, Karim noted, did happen.

After the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, Karim relocated to Damascus. There, he expanded his Al-Mada organization, focusing on publishing, translation, and organizing book fairs, alongside his political activities.

This allowed him to build relationships with top civilian and military officials.

In 2000, after Bashar al-Assad came to power, he met with Karim.

“I felt Assad was eager to listen, especially given my connections with many intellectuals,” recalled Karim.

“I told him dissenting voices exist but are mostly positive. You talk about modernization and renewal; this is a chance for some openness, even in elections,” Karim said he told Assad.

“Do you think anyone could really compete with you, given your position as the Baath Party's leader with all its resources?” Karim questioned.

Karim then discussed the situation of Syrian Kurds with Assad, noting that many lack identification papers, even basic travel documents. He also mentioned seeing historic Kurdish areas in the Khabur region with their names changed to Arabic, which causes sensitivities.

“I am not satisfied with this situation. Rest assured, this issue is on my agenda, and you will hear positive news about it,” Karim cited Assad as saying at the time.

In a later meeting, after the change in Iraq, Karim met Assad several times.

On one occasion, Karim recalls conveying Talabani’s greetings and concerns about armed fighters moving into Iraq and the dangers this posed to both Iraq and possibly Syria.

“We have deployed large forces to secure the borders, but what can we do? There are tribes and smugglers,” Assad complained about the situation.

“I told President Assad that as Fakhri Karim, I couldn’t share with the Americans what I know. I assured him that terrorists enter Iraq from a specific location I’m familiar with, not from all borders,” Karim recounted to Asharq Al-Awsat.

“I also noted that Syria tightly controls its airspace, shooting down any foreign aircraft,” he added.

Assad then responded to Karim and said: “We’re prepared, let us know what we can do.”

In reality, Damascus was worried because there were reports suggesting that Syria’s Baath regime could be the next target for the US army at its borders. Additionally, Damascus was concerned about the sectarian divisions—Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish—in dealing with Iraq and the potential impact on Syria.

Repairing Kurdish Relations

Karim has spent years working on repairing the relationship between Kurdish leaders Talabani and Masoud Barzani.

This history began with the split that gave rise to the ‘Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’ from the ‘Kurdistan Democratic Party.’

Despite bloody conflicts and external meddling, Karim believes Kurdish leaders unify in the face of danger to their people and region, a pattern he expects to continue.

Karim believes that the Kurdish leadership, symbolized by Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, made a big mistake at the beginning by focusing only on regional issues, ignoring Baghdad’s affairs.

He thinks they should have aimed for a federal democratic system that respects citizenship rights.

Karim pointed out that without a unified Iraq, the region’s rights would be uncertain. He also criticized the Shiite-Kurdish alliance, which he sees as odd.

Additionally, he mentioned mistakes in failing to unify regional institutions and increasing corruption, with party interests often trumping competence in appointments.

Asked about the personal bond between Talabani and Barzani, Karim said: “Both have moved past their tough history, but they haven’t done enough for the future.”

“I want to highlight an act by Barzani that shows his character. When Talabani was sick, Barzani made it clear to anyone thinking of harming Talabani or his family that there would be consequences,” he revealed.

“This isn’t hearsay, it’s firsthand,” affirmed Karim.

“Barzani also refused to discuss the presidency or a successor during Talabani’s illness. I personally organized a gathering for Talabani’s family, where Barzani reassured them, ‘I’m here for you, I’m family.’ His words moved everyone, showing a strong emotional connection,” he added.

When asked about Barzani’s character, Karim said: “He's been a long-time friend, and our relationship has been politically aligned and personally warm from the start.”

“I see him as a loyal friend, and he's shown that loyalty on multiple occasions. He’s smart, decisive, and listens carefully, often changing his mind after thorough consideration,” he noted.

“Once Barzani commits to something, he finds it hard to go back on his word. There was a moment during negotiations with Saddam Hussein when he stood firm despite my advice to reconsider,” recalled Karim.

Regarding the aftermath of the independence referendum, Karim believes that the negative turn in the political landscape began during Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure.

Al-Maliki’s attempts to shift alliances and his refusal to compromise exacerbated tensions.

The referendum itself wasn’t the problem; rather, it was exploited by some to punish the Kurdistan Region.

However, Karim emphasized that holding referendums is a citizen’s right, and the purpose of the Kurdistan referendum was to affirm this right, not to declare independence.