India is targeting West Asian countries to launch a drive for arms exports with the Indo-Russian BrahMos cruise missile and other products including ammunition for small arms being the main products to be traded. The government is seeking to rapidly expand commercial ties with countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman and Qatar — some of which are close allies of Pakistan —in the hope of putting more pressure on its arch rival.
India remains a limited defence exporter with its only significant market in West Asia being Oman and even there its sale largely consists of small arms. However, with the oil price fall hitting the region’s economy, it has started looking into setting up own defence industries for self-reliance and exports.
Much of the defence manufacturing base of West Asia remains in the development stage and is relegated to Tier 2 and Tier 3 suppliers. “What ‘manufacturing’ occurs is largely in the area of munitions and small arms, with some licence-production (Egypt primarily) performed. The UAE is growing in the area of niche naval shipbuilding and unmanned platforms and both the UAE and Jordan have worked to develop and design armoured patrol vehicles,” Daniel Darling, international military markets analyst at US-based think tank Forecast International told FE.
According to Darling, “It should also be noted that Saudi Arabian declarations of intent to build up a stronger defence manufacturing base are not necessarily new – they have been voiced before, most recently in January 2011 when former deputy defence minister Prince Khaled bin Sultan declared the country’s intent to domestically-produce 70% of all equipment utilised by the Saudi armed forces.”
“India is aiming to bolster trade and defence ties with the UAE and other states in the region. Besides, with the second edition of its 10-day Desert Eagle-II combat exercise with the UAE Air Force, New Delhi is also seeking to maintain, service, upgrade and weaponise the UAE’s 12 BAE Systems Hawk MK102 advanced jet trainers (AJT),” said Rahul Bedi, Jane’s Defense Weekly,
To give a boost to the defence ties between the two countries, India and Saudi Arabia have a Joint Committee on Defense Cooperation to evolve plans for cooperation in numerous areas of defence cooperation, including high-level reciprocal visits at the political, official and the three armed forces levels, ship visits and conducting passage exercises during such port calls. Among the possibilities thought of at the talks are signing a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in hydrography, increased participation of both sides in training programmes, and examine the possibility of cooperation in defence industries.
While Saudi Arabia has voiced declarations of intent to build up its own defence manufacturing base, it lacks technical expertise and homegrown skilled workers. Thus, even with a robust, prolonged effort, it will be decade(s) before Saudi Arabia is more than a limited-supply, boutique defence manufacturer, say experts.
“Despite its large defence budget, Saudi Arabia has a limited internal market that would not prove sufficient for the efforts put into attempting to expand its own defence industrial base beyond component and spareparts manufacture. It would have to become the preferred supplier for fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Arab partners and defence-buying countries without any local production of their own. The GCC nations already prefer Western (or Russian or now even Chinese) vendors and their modern hardware and familiarity with after-sales support,” explains Darling.
From an Indian perspective, the question is whether it is worth for Indian defence companies to tie-up with nascent Arabian partners or Tier-2/3 firms in the UAE or Jordan (such as Jordan’s King Abdullah Design and Development Bureau).