India’s Importance in the Middle East

April 22, 2014

There are over 6 million Indian citizens working in the Middle East. That is more than the population of Finland. This provides some context as to why India has now actively started to build its relations further with the region. It also raises the question as to why it has waited for so long to do so.

Trade between the two regions is expansive. India receives over $35 billion per annum in remittances from the Gulf. Combined, the Middle East is the country’s largest trading partner and cities like Dubai are sometimes in humour called the “fifth metropolis of India.”

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, India took the initiative to engage with the Arab world, building strong ties with countries such as Egypt. In fact, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser shared a great personal friendship and were pivotal in setting up the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).  India’s engagement with the region became strained during the 1970s after many Arab nations (and even Iran) gave support to Pakistan over the Kashmir crisis. However, in the subsequent years relations began to normalize, and trade started to flourish. After India liberalised its economy in the early 1990s, its appetite for oil increased significantly, and the Middle East became the biggest suppliers, quenching New Delhi’s energy thirst. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah’s visits to India and China in 2006 were pivotal events, equally from Riyadh’s side as from New Delhi’s and Beijing’s.  From 2006 onwards, India has seen a dramatic increase in relations, both political and economic, with the larger West Asian region, including Israel and Iran.

Over the past few years, India has started to see the long-overdue evolution of its relations with the Arab world, moving from economic and diplomatic exchanges to strategic partnerships. Under the rubric of being a “non-interventionist” nation, India had managed to remain an ambivalent power in the region mostly concerned with its need to secure oil supplies. This explained India’s ties with Saddam Hussein. During the first Gulf War, India was the only country to shift its high commission out of Kuwait City to the southern Iraqi city of Basra as Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait.  Asked why India did not condemn Iraqi aggression, an Indian diplomat said that “condemnation was not part of India’s nature.”

The fact that “condemnation” was seen as unnatural by a certain part of the country’s diplomatic community could rightly show that New Delhi was a docile presence in the region at that point of time.

Things have now moved towards greener pastures as the Middle East also looks towards India as a major future presence in the region, along with China. The decline of American influence in the region and America’s efforts to compromise with Iran have upset long term allies in Riyadh and other regional capitals. The fact that President Obama decided to work towards a compromise with Iran over its nuclear program raised alarm bells amongst the GCC states. In fact, Saudi Arabia was seen posturing along with Israel to put pressure on Washington to act against Tehran, instead of legitimizing the country’s nuclear ambitions. However, almost every country in the region is aware that India will not pick sides in their internal regional matters, and will engage with everyone.

Last December, while attending a security conference in Bahrain, Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said that while India was not looking to fill any kind of vacuum left by withdrawing American presence, it was willing to provide “logistics” in areas such as counter-terrorism, intelligence building, protection of sea-lanes and capacity building.

While Mr Khurshid did not expand on what “logistics” exactly entailed, recent bilateral defence deals between India and Qatar and India and Saudi Arabia provide evidence of India’s growing involvement and the pointed evolution of New Delhi’s “West Asia” policy. In 2008, India and Qatar signed a defense agreement that seems to have laid the foundations for a larger Indian presence in the region.

“The defence and security cooperation agreements are the only one of the kind that India has signed with any country,” an Indian government official said.

Under the agreements, New Delhi has committed to protect Qatar’s assets and interests from external threats. “The agreements are short of stationing troops,” the official continued, but did not elaborate on the form in which India would go to Qatar’s rescue in case of a threat.

Qatar has a large number of US troops stationed on its soil but wanted more “comfort” and had been pursuing the deal with India since 2005, media reports quoted Indian officials as saying.

The deal with Qatar brings up the possibility of India getting militarily involved in an event in which shipping lines get blocked and hamper the free-flow of oil and gas to the sub-continental shores, or in another such situation that may threaten its own national interests. Here, it is important to note that India is already militarily active in the Arabian Sea and off-coast of Africa in anti-piracy operations.

India and Saudi Arabia also signed a defense pact this year, details of which remain largely unknown, but which is seen as a significant move in relations between the two states. The successful signing of this pact comes on the back of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Riyadh in 2010, where both sides acknowledged that they were entering into a “new era” of Indo – Saudi ties.

Prior to this, India and Saudi Arabia had already started exchanging intelligence on terror suspects and other extremist elements. Even though questions have been raised in Indian diplomatic circles on how New Delhi plans to address the topic of Riyadh itself funding extremist groups, the Indians seem ready to keep that issue on the sideline for the time being. The current scuffle between Saudi Arabia and Qatar also highlights the complexities of the region’s politics, which states such as India and China will have to deal with.

Last month, police in Dubai arrested and deported one Faizan Ahmed Sultan, allegedly an operative of a terror outfit, the Indian Mujahideen (IM). Sultan was wanted for the 2008 Delhi serial blasts and for being a close aide to IM co-founder Amir Reza Khan. This arrest happened days after Abu Dhabi nabbed IM suspect Abdul Wahid Siddibapa, wanted for multiple blasts between 2006 and 2010. These arrests are strong examples of the growing strategic ties between India and the Gulf.

Over the past month, diplomatic exchanges between India and the West Asian region led to a diplomatic traffic jam in New Delhi, with Saudi Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, Iranian Foreign Minister Dr. Javad Zarif and Oman’s Foreign Minister Yousif bin Alawai bin Abdullah visiting within hours of each other. The fact that the Saudi and Iranian delegations were in New Delhi without causing any noise over each other’s presence shows the importance that India now holds in the region’s economy, politics and society.

During Dr. Zarif and Mr. Abdullah’s visit, ideas such as the Iran-Oman-India pipeline for transportation of natural gas were discussed. Previously, projects such as the India–Pakistan–Iran pipeline have failed to gain any momentum due to the volatility of constructing and investing in such infrastructure in Pakistan and its many tribal, lawless regions.

However, New Delhi is determined to engage not just with the Gulf, but also with the other, more controversial states in the region, which share volatile relations with its Arab partners. India has had close relations with Iran for centuries, and has maintained the same through Tehran’s period of international sanctions over the past few years. Iran has over $5 billion of oil payments currently lying in a bank account in Kolkata, and both countries are trying everything from routing money via willing third party banking systems to the age-old practice of the barter system in order to continue the energy trade. Even Washington has given India time-bound waivers in the past to conduct energy trade with Tehran, knowing that New Delhi would not sever ties with Iran under any Western pressure.

The Middle East today offers a unique opportunity for cooperation with Asian states such as India, China, Japan and even South Korea. A stronger presence of Asian economies is a win-win situation for all the players in the region, including the US, which is fast becoming energy independent and hence less reliant on Middle Eastern oil. With Beijing already becoming the world’s largest net importer of oil and India being the third largest, security in the Middle East will become as crucial to India as it has been for Washington.

 

Kabir Taneja is journalist based in New Delhi specializing in foreign affairs. He is also a scholar at Takshashila Institution, where he researches India’s relations with the Middle East.

 

Photo credit: Zamanalsamt