Veteran Indian diplomat Talmiz Ahmad, who has served as his country’s ambassador in three Gulf states including Oman, cited this anecdotal incident to summarise India’s millennia-old ties with the Gulf nations.
As part of the celebrations marking 60 years of diplomatic ties between India and Oman this year, Ahmad delivered a talk on ‘India-Oman relations: A historic and contemporary perspective’ at the Indian Embassy in Muscat on Thursday. The formal diplomatic ties were established in 1955 with the opening of the Indian consulate in Muscat.
“There is very special warmth and depth in the relationship that India has with Oman and this is something that is cherished on both sides. This is borne out of the millennia-old ties,” Ahmad said in an exclusive interview with Muscat Daily.
“Oman’s perspectives are of great importance in New Delhi,” he added.
Ahmad served as India’s top diplomat in the sultanate more than a decade ago in 2003-04. He has also served as the ambassador in neighbouring Saudi Arabia (two terms - 2000-03, 2010-11) and in the UAE (2007-10).
5000 years of friendship
Remembering his stint in the sultanate, Ahmad said, “When I was here, we were planning for the celebrations of 50th anniversary of our diplomacy. The logo for the event had these words: ‘50 years of diplomatic relations, 5000 years of friendship’.”
“We had planned a series of events including an exhibition at the Bait al Zubair Museum. Late Sarah White was the curator of the event and she did a marvelous job. Although I left in 2004 [before the commemorative year 2005], I was actively involved in the collection of the exhibits and therefore played a key role in shaping the event,” he recalled.
In the ensuing ten years, Ahmad stressed, the bilateral ties have not only strengthened but added a ‘strategic dimension’. “Over the years, even as we have built up our economic relations, there has been an increasing focus on the political aspects. So it is truly now a strategic
partnership and this is also manifested in our very strong defence cooperation.”
“There is a lot of high-level dialogue and exchange of views. When we listen to our interlocutors from Oman, we get a very deep understanding of how they evaluate the challenges that have emerged in this region. There is a feeling that our two countries working together can bring extraordinary value and strength to addressing regional issues,” he elucidated.
Praising Oman’s ‘extraordinary’ role in bringing together Iran and the US for the nuclear talks, Ahmad described it as ‘a remarkable achievement’. “If there’s any progress and final settlement of the nuclear issue, I personally believe, it will be extremely good both for the region and for world affairs,” he said.
Ahmad stressed that India views a peaceful Gulf as a key to its own energy security. “While GCC provides 50 per cent [of India’s oil needs], between Iraq and Iran – they provide another 25 per cent. Therefore, 75 per cent of India’s oil comes from the Gulf. This is likely to become 90 per cent in 2035-40,” he elaborated.
The former ambassador said that the Western sanctions on Iran have had adverse impact on India. “Therefore, if you look at it from New Delhi, a safe and secure Gulf is crucial for our well-being. There is no future for India unless the Gulf is safe and secure.”
Ahmad also drew attention to India’s successful evacuation of citizens of some 40 odd countries from conflict-hit Yemen recently at a time when global powers like the US avoided intervening. “We were successful because we are not seen as aliens in this region. Whether it is the southern coast of Yemen or it is the coast of Oman or it is all the littoral states of the Gulf on both sides, India has always been seen as a legitimate presence for several millennia.”
“And therefore, we have a very high level of cultural comfort in the region. We’ve had people living for centuries in Aden and in the Hadramawt area from where we evacuated,” he added.
Underlining that India is among the very few nations which has equally good ties with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel, Ahmad hinted that New Delhi will lead the Asian strategic presence in the Middle East in years to come.
“The US will refrain from any more military action in the Middle East. Their interventions have damaged the fabric of this region very seriously and have caused untold harm,” he said.
“In this situation we have an opportunity today for countries in Asia led by India, China, Japan and South Korea to see how they can play a role in promoting understanding and dialogue between the major countries in the region that are in contention with each other,” Ahmad explained.
The veteran diplomat also suggested that over the next few years, India and Oman will cooperate increasingly on regional security issues. “It is unfortunate that the security situation in Middle East continues to deteriorate. Both Oman and India are equally affected by the deteriorating security situation and we have a joint challenge to address this.”
“Somebody asked me recently: ‘What do you feel is the future of Middle East?’ And, I said: ‘The future is very bright but you cannot be comfortable if your neighbourhood is aflame’,” Ahmad quipped.
“So, I think a combination of India and Oman working together swiftly to address immediate concerns and a long term strategic role by major Asian countries to engage directly to promote security in this region will lead us all to a broader Asian embrace,” he opined.
Indian Ocean links
Ahmad also advocated for reviving the ancient ties among the Indian Ocean nations. While acknowledging that the first step towards realising this vision has been taken with the formation of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), Ahmad felt that the international organisation needs to be made more robust.
“Colonialism interrupted a 4,500 year old connectivity [among the Indian Ocean nations] that was non-hegemonic, non-intrusive and extremely fruitful. It defined our culture. It made us what we are,” he said. “At one level we are recovering it but you cannot recover something unless you give it contemporary substance and value,” he concluded.