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India army chief to make historic visit to Saudi Arabia

Manoj Naravane will be India's first army chief to visit Saudi Arabia, as Riyadh's diplomatic relations with Pakistan deteriorate
Indian army chief Manoj Naravane's trip follows Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar's visit to Bahrain (Reuters)

General Manoj Mukund Naravane will be India's first army chief to visit Saudi Arabia, in a historic tour starting on Sunday that signals closer ties between New Delhi and the Gulf kingdom.

The Indian army chief will split his four-day trip between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

Naravane will meet his counterparts in Riyadh and address the Saudi National Defence College before heading to Abu Dhabi, according to Indian news reports. 

'When Pakistan banded together with Malaysia and Turkey, it only helped India push further with its relations in the Gulf'

- Kabir Taneja, fellow at Observer Research Foundation  

The visit comes as diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, a traditional ally, have hit an all-time low. 

Last week, India criticised the Saudi-led Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for passing a motion calling on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to rescind his government's decision to end the Kashmir region's semi-autonomous status

New Delhi also criticised Riyadh for issuing a banknote to mark its chairmanship of the G20 because it depicted Kashmir as an independent entity. 

The motion came after the head of Pakistan's army, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, visited Saudi Arabia following Islamabad's criticism of Riyadh for not calling an emergency OIC session to discuss Kashmir. 

Bajwa was denied an audience with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - also known as MBS - and instead met with his younger brother, Deputy Defence Minister Khalid bin Salman.

The Pakistani army general gave the younger Salman a personal apology from Prime Minister Imran Khan for his foreign minister's criticism and then went home. 

Kabir Taneja, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, told Middle East Eye that Naravane's visit was another sign that Pakistan's falling out with Saudi Arabia has provided an opportunity for India. 

"When Pakistan banded together with Malaysia and Turkey, it only helped India push further with its relations in the Gulf," said Taneja, who believes this visit is a sign of India adapting to new economic realities and geopolitical shifts in the region. 

"It highlights the limitations of the theological bridge between Pakistan and Saudi as MBS plans to shift Riyadh's economy away from dependence on oil, for which he needs India's massive market."

Naravane's trip follows a visit to Bahrain late last month by India's external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.