India’s Engagement with the Middle East Reflects New Delhi’s Changing Worldview


In the early 1990s, India responded to the end of the Cold War with a new “Look East” policy, which it subsequently rebranded as “Act East” in 2014. Today, India has developed a “Think West” policy, focused on what those in the West call the Middle East. So which way is India thinking, looking, and acting today?

Much as India’s “Look/Act East” policy reflected a shift in India’s worldview following the end of the Cold War, New Delhi’s reinvigorated engagement with the Middle East today reflects a deeper, ongoing shift in the country’s external engagement. This includes a more muscular and assertive foreign policy that is less piecemeal and more strategic in its approach. Embedded within this is an Indian proclivity to align itself more closely with the United States and to develop a more ideologically driven foreign policy that is embedded in the Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) ideology of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

The challenge will be sustaining this in what is arguably the world’s most polarized and bifurcated region, particularly given the embryonic nature of diplomatic initiatives like the I2U2 (Israel-India-United States-United Arab Emirates) and the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor. Further complicating India’s westward engagement is the country’s divisive, identity-driven domestic politics and the chronic risk of a spillover of instabilities in the Middle East into South Asia.



From Piecemeal to Strategic Approach

New Delhi’s renewed engagement with the Middle East (or West Asia, as Indian policymakers refer to it) needs to be seen in the broader context of the Modi government’s outreach to India’s “extended neighborhood.” Alongside the Middle East, India has also stepped up its eastward engagement (as part of a rebranded “Act East” policy) and expanded relations with the Indian Ocean Region (as part of such initiatives as Security and Growth for All in the Region), and the countries of South Asia (as part of its “Neighborhood First” policy).

While India’s westward engagement is not new, during the Cold War India’s relations with the Middle East were held hostage to several factors. India and the United States were on opposite sides of the Cold War divide, while Indian support for the Palestinian cause limited overt engagement with Israel. What’s more, India’s preference for engaging secular, socialist regimes in the region such as Egypt and Iraq rather than conservative kingdoms such as Saudi Arabia were a further impediment.

Now, India’s position has changed on all three fronts. New Delhi’s longstanding engagement with the Middle East has been embedded in the areas of energy, trade, and people-to-people contacts. With imports accounting for over 80 percent of India’s oil consumption, the Middle East remains key to India’s energy security needs, notwithstanding the surge in Indian imports of discounted Russian crude. Gulf states have also emerged as key sources of investment in India’s energy sector, which has helped to boost India’s prominence as a global refining hub. On the economic front, the over eight million Indians working in the Gulf account for almost 30 percent of India’s total foreign remittances, which is significant considering that India is the world’s leading remittance recipient.

What has changed in recent years is that these longstanding interactions have been supplemented by more diversified economic exchanges, deepened security cooperation, and a shift away from the more piecemeal or transactional approach of the past. While the importance of the region as a source of oil imports and foreign remittances remains, this has been subsumed under more holistic and strategic engagement.

Take the Indian-Emirati relationship: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United Arab Emirates in February 2024 — his seventh as prime minister and the first visit by an Indian prime minister in over three decades — demonstrates deepening relations between both countries. India and the Emirates concluded a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement in 2022, which was supplemented by the conclusion of a Bilateral Investment Treaty this year. While oil trade remains a key component of the bilateral relationship, economic engagement has diversified into other areas including fintech, clean energy, food security, and education. The conclusion of a memorandum of understanding between the Reserve Bank of India and the Central Bank of the Emirates in 2023 also supports the development of a rupee-dirham settlement mechanism, which has helped to facilitate the internationalization of the Indian rupee.

Modi’s impromptu visit to Qatar in February shortly before the reported release of eight former Indian naval personnel who had been sentenced to death also reflects New Delhi’s growing clout in the region. Modi’s visit to Doha came on the heels of India’s Petronet and Qatar Energy concluding a $78 billion deal to extend a 25-year contract that was due to expire in 2028. This will entail Qatar supplying India with 7.5 million tons of liquified natural gas per year over 20 years. Modi’s visit, combined with the gas deal and release of Indian nationals on death row, is evidence of the growing dexterity of New Delhi’s foreign policy.

Securitizing India’s Relations with Middle East

India’s westward engagement also reflects a more muscular foreign policy. This has been reflected in the Indian Navy’s prominent role in tackling the renewed threat of Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden, as well as countering attacks by Houthi rebels targeting commercial shipping in the Red Sea. This is a shift from India’s earlier naval deployments, which were largely defensive and confined to rescuing Indian nationals stranded in conflict zones such as Yemen (2015), Libya (2011), Lebanon (2006), and Kuwait (1990). Undergirding this is the strategic importance of sea lines of communicationfor India’s trade and energy security. Ninety-five percent of India’s trade by volume and 65 percent by value transits the maritime domain, with 50 percent of India’s exports and 30 percent of its imports transiting the Red Sea. What’s more, Indians are among the top nationals that provide crews for the world’s commercial shipping fleet.

India has also developed a more securitized relationship with countries in the region. In the last decade, India has established combined air, naval, and army exercises with the Emirates and Oman, as well as holding multilateral naval exercises with Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. This has helped to strengthen the Indian military’s interoperability with regional counterparts, as well as facilitating its emergence as a net security provider in the region. Growing military-to-military engagement extends to extra-territorial powers. India and France have conducted trilateral air and naval exercises with the United Arab Emirates. India has also joined the 43-nation Combined Maritime Forces naval partnership based in Bahrain, which will facilitate more multilateral security operations in the Gulf, complementing India’s existing initiatives in the Indo-Pacific.

India’s growing strategic engagement with the region also reflects the country’s growing alignment with the U.S.-led regional architecture in the Middle East. This has been evident in India’s participation in the I2U2 initiative, which was launched in 2021, and the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, which was launched in 2023. While I2U2 and the corridor are ostensibly economic initiatives, they have strong strategic underpinnings. Specifically, they are aligned with broader U.S. efforts to facilitate a rapprochement between Israel and the Arab Gulf states through such initiatives as the Abraham Accords. However, the ongoing conflict in Gaza has delayed progress on these initiatives and given pause to claims that they will usher the emergence of a “new Middle East.”

Ideological Considerations

India’s Middle East policy also reflects the growing promotion of India as a civilizational state as part of the Hindu nationalist ideology of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. So far, this has been largely benign and rhetorical in the foreign policy realm, as reflected by the government referring to India as “Bharat” and describing India with terms such as Vishwa Guru (“world teacher”) and Vishwa Mitra (“friend to the world”). In a Middle Eastern context, this ideologically driven foreign policy has been evident in Modi’s inauguration of a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi in February this year — the first such temple in the Emirates. Coming in the aftermath of the much-publicized consecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, India, in January, this reflects the government’s effort to strengthen the country’s diaspora linkages while promoting India as a “Hindu Rashtra,” or Hindu nation.

This approach has been supplemented by more substantive actions that signal a shift in India’s foreign policy. The most notable example of this is India’s deepening relationship with Israel. Modi’s tweet following the Oct. 7, 2023, terrorist attack noting that “we stand in solidarity with Israel” was followed by the more significant action of India abstaining in a U.N. General Assembly resolution on Oct. 27 that condemned Israel’s attacks on Gaza. India also supported an amendment to it that explicitly condemned the Hamas attacks on Israel. Some 120 countries voted in favor of the resolution, while India was one of 45 that abstained and the only country in South Asia to do so. The fact that New Delhi’s position was out of sync with large parts of the Global South — where India maintains leadership ambitions — is significant as it signaled the country’s willingness to stick its neck out in support of Israel.

New Delhi has come out more strongly in support of the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza in subsequent U.N. General Assembly resolutions. However, it once again abstained in a vote in the U.N. Human Rights Council in April that called for an end to arms transfers to Israel, as well as accusing it of possible war crimes. Considering that India was the first non-Arab state to vote against Israel’s admission to the U.N. in 1948 and to recognize the state of Palestine in 1988, its reaction to the hostilities triggered by the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks on Israel indicates a shift in New Delhi’s historical position.

To be sure, part of this shift reflects the longer-term evolution of India’s relations with Israel since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1992. Indian-Israeli relations have also been driven by pragmatic considerations rooted in Israel’s growing strategic importance to India’s defense and technology sectors, alongside both countries’ close relations with the United States. However, under the Modi government, ideological considerations have also gained significance as elements of the Bharatiya Janata Party see a mutual affinity between India and Israel as religious nationalist states facing an existential threat from Islamic extremism. This has been complemented by a view held by the party that India no longer needs to be shy about its relations with Israel to appease the country’s minority Muslim population.

Maintaining “Strategic Autonomy” in the Most Polarized Region

Much of India’s eastward engagement at the end of the Cold War was a microcosm of a broader shift in its foreign policy; stepped-up engagement with the Middle East also reflects another ongoing reorientation in the country’s worldview.

The challenge is maintaining India’s longstanding commitment to strategic autonomy in its foreign policy, which entails holding an equidistant position from all major poles of influence in the international system in what is arguably the world’s most polarized and bifurcated region that is split between multiple regional powers — including Israel, Iran, Turkey, and the Arab Gulf states — and non-regional powers, including the United States, Russia, China, and Europe.

Take the India-Iran relationship. New Delhi’s deepening presence in the U.S.-led security system in the Middle East threatens to compromise its longstanding relationship with Tehran. Under pressure from Washington, India terminated the import of Iranian oil, which had been close to 10 percent of its total imports before U.S. sanctions were reimposed in 2018. New Delhi’s participation in the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, which aims to strengthen connectivity between India, the Middle East, and Europe through a multimodal rail, shipping, and energy corridor, also threatens to dilute the significance of other regional connectivity initiatives. This includes the Chabahar port project in Iran which forms part of the International North-South Transport Corridor. India also appears increasingly aloof in initiatives, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and an expanded BRICS where Iran (alongside Russia and China) is seeking to promote an overtly anti-Western agenda.

And yet India still needs Iran in the context of its interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia where Tehran remains a prominent player. This explains Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s visit to Iran in January where he sought to renew New Delhi’s relations with Tehran. It also explains India’s decision not to join Operation Prosperity Guardian, the U.S.-led maritime operation to protect ships from attacks by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, despite India carrying out its own naval operations in the region. India has also recently concluded a ten-year agreement to manage the Chabahar port, raising scrutiny from Washington.

Tehran, in turn, has signaled its displeasure on India’s tilt toward Israel and the United States with the recent visit of Iranian President Ebrahim Raissi to Pakistan. Raissi’s visit has prompted renewed efforts to make progress on a long-discussed gas pipeline between both countries, as well as fueling concerns over Iranian support for Pakistan’s ballistic missile program. The swift de-escalation of border tensions between Iran and Pakistan earlier this year suggests efforts by both countries to stabilize bilateral relations as they remain focused on more significant adversaries — Israel (for Iran) and India (for Pakistan).

India also maintains difficult relations with Turkey. This comes as Ankara has historically backed Pakistan on the Kashmir issue while India has pursued deepening relations with Turkey’s regional rivals, Greece, Israel, and Armenia. Turkey’s exclusion from the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor is also a source of friction, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announcing that “there is no corridor without Turkey.” Adding to the difficulties is the fact that the waters between the Greek port of Piraeus and the Israeli port of Haifa — which are key nodes in the corridor — are part of Ankara’s newly claimed exclusive economic zone.

On the most significant flashpoint in the Middle East –—the Israel-Palestine issue — India has managed to square the circle by maintaining cordial relations with both sides, as well as with other interested parties such as the Gulf Arab states and Iran. Officially, New Delhi has continued to maintain a balanced position by calling for a negotiated two-state solution. Modi’s much-publicized visit to Israel in 2017 — the first by an Indian prime minister — was followed by a visitto Ramallah in the West Bank a year later, also a first for an Indian prime minister.

As the various parties in the Middle East harden their positions and adopt more belligerent postures, however, India’s balancing act will only get more difficult.

Challenges on the Horizon

Will India’s Middle East ambitions ultimately fall victim to latent connections between developments in the Middle East and South Asia and India’s domestic politics? These represent real risks for New Delhi to contend with.

The first challenge to India’s new policy reflects the embryonic nature of the regional architecture in the Middle East. Claims that the I2U2 is the Middle East equivalent of the Quad or that the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor seeks to challenge China’s Belt and Road Initiative are exaggerated. Unlike the Quad member-states, which are Asia’s four major maritime democracies with a shared commitment to a rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific, no such consensus exists within the I2U2. While the Quad maintains a distinctly anti-China flavor, it is unclear which rival I2U2 and the economic corridor seek to confront given that India is opposed to being part of any anti-Iran initiative while the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia oppose an anti-China regional grouping. These initiatives remain in their infancy and fall short of what China has achieved in the region, such as brokering the resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in 2023.

Second is India’s eternally difficult relationship with Pakistan. In his first speech after being sworn in as Pakistani prime minister in March, Shehbaz Sharif equated the plight of the Palestinians with that of the Kashmiris. So far, Middle Eastern countries have largely overlooked the Kashmir issue in light of India’s growing geopolitical clout, just as they have the treatment of Uyghurs in deference to China. As a result, New Delhi has managed to successfully de-hyphenate its Middle East policy from its relations with Pakistan. However, maintaining this de-hyphenation will be a challenge amid the chronic risk of Middle Eastern instabilities spilling over into South Asia. For New Delhi, the worst-case scenario would be a replay of the situation that existed in the 1980s and 1990s when Pakistan sought to leverage Afghanistan’s emergence as a hub for Islamic extremist groups into a form of “strategic depth” in Islamabad’s rivalry with India.

Exacerbating these developments is a more ideologically driven foreign policy embedded in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva ideology. Is it possible for India to deepen relations with a region that is the birthplace of Islam while there are growing instances of anti-Muslim rhetoric at home? The fact that several Arab governments have voiced concerns over Islamophobic statements and policies emanating from India suggests not.

More divisive identity-driven politics at home combined with closer relations to the United States and Israel and the chronic risk of a spillover of Middle East instabilities could all create new obstacles for India in the region. These factors belie the official optimism surrounding the I2U2 and India-Middle East-Europe Corridor and represent key challenges for a likely third-term Modi government in the Middle East.



Dr. Chietigj Bajpaee is senior research fellow for South Asia at Chatham House, a U.K.-based public policy think-tank.

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