Saudi-Indian ties have reached a new high with the arrival of an Indian Air Force (IAF) flying contingent at the King Fahd Air Base in Taif.
The mission, comprising more than 100 high-ranking IAF officers and airmen onboard Sukhoi MKI fighter aircraft, C-17 Globe Masters, C-130 Super Hercules and IL-78 aircraft, landed in Taif on Sunday on the way back from the UK where they had taken part in a multinational exercise.
“This is for first time that fighter aircraft from India have landed in Saudi Arabia,” said senior Indian diplomat Hemant Kotalwar at a press conference in Jeddah.
“We want to express our thanks to Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the support and cooperation that was extended to us during the visit,” said Kotalwar.
According to Kotalwar, there have been frequent goodwill visits by the Indian Navy ships to the ports of Jeddah and Jubail.
“We have also had transport aircraft transiting Saudi Arabia in the past,” he said. The significance of this particular event is that fighter aircraft from India have landed in Saudi Arabia for the first time.
“This indicates the depth of our ties which have been on the upswing for quite some time and which have gained new momentum following King Salman’s visit to India in February 2014 when he was crown prince,” said Kotalwar. “It was during that visit that a bilateral cooperation agreement was signed lending a new thrust to the relationship.”
The visit underscored the close defense ties between Saudi Arabia and India. Both countries regularly exchange high level delegations aimed at furthering cooperation between the two armed forces. Officers from both countries have been attending courses in their pursuit of shared learning.
In recent months, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly acknowledged and thanked King Salman for helping with the evacuation of Indian nationals from Yemen.
“This is a robust testimony to the strength of our bilateral relations,” said Kotalwar.
Wing Commander S. Joardar, who also addressed the press conference in Jeddah, said: “In our view, this is called the staging visit. We could have chosen to do this in any country in the region but we chose Saudi Arabia. That indicates the significance we attach to the country.”
The contingent was led by Group Capt. A. Srivastava. “We had a wonderful time in Saudi Arabia and we were made to feel at home,” he said.
Group Capt. J. Banerjee said landing and midair refueling over the mountains of Taif were challenging.
“When a runway is 5,000 feet above sea level, as was the case in Taif, that is always a challenge. We have to factor in many things, but we loved the topography,” he said. “Also, landing at a Saudi Air Base was quite an experience in itself.”
According to him, the Saudis got a good look at India’s state-of-the-art and modest modern fighter jets. “They got a good idea about our capabilities and we got a good idea about their immense professionalism,” he said.
To a question if there were any possibilities of a joint Saudi-Indian exercise, Wing Commander Joardar said: “This depends on an invitation from the host country. We see no reason why that cannot be done if there is an invitation.”
A career diplomat, Kotalwar expressed hope that the two countries would continue to work together in future to seek greater convergence in all facets of mutual cooperation.
Acting Consul General Noor Rahman Sheikh also attended the press conference along with senior editors and journalists of local and Indian publications.