In this essay…
The Middle-East region is one of the most complex regions in the world. Handling its relation with the middle east is not an easy task either for developing countries or developed countries. Even countries of the middle east face lot of challenges in managing their relations with each other. So far, India has been one of the most successful countries in balancing the complex dynamics of the middle east. Emerging new challenges like climate change, terrorism, and the COVID-19 pandemic have asked India to re-orient its policy to balance the region.
India and the middle east
India’s relations with the Gulf countries are very old. Pundit Nehru in his book ‘Discovery of India’ says that “few people have been more closely related in origin and throughout history than India and Iran.” Persian influence was first introduced to the Indian subcontinent. Some of Ashoka’s edicts are found in Iran in the Kharosti script influenced by Persian art.
The region is part of Mackinder’s heartland and forms part of India’s extended neighborhood of Kautilya’s Mandal Siddhant. Relations between the people of Afghanistan and India trace to the Indus Valley Civilisation. The Mauryan controlled the area south of the Hindu Kush, and during this period Hinduism and Buddhism prevailed. In the Medieval period, Sher Shah Suri from Afghanistan ruled the eastern part of India presently located in the Rohtas district of Bihar.
Why the middle east is important for India?
Even today, India is dependent on the middle east for energy security. India imports 82% of its oil needs. Traditionally, OPEC countries have been India’s main suppliers and account for 86% of Indian oil imports. The Middle East also plays a significant role in the Indian economy. According to World Bank, India is the largest global recipient of remittances in 2019. World Bank claims that India received $83 billion as remittances in 2020. It is greater than India’s bilateral trade of South Asia ($36 billion in 2018) and Africa ($62 billion for 2017-18).
Apart from energy security and remittances, the Middle East is also absorbing India’s population and providing employment opportunities over there. In the context of political security, India has signed prisoner repatriation treaties with the countries of the Middle east. India got diplomatic support from most of the countries of the middle east on the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir. India also receives sympathy from the middle east in the context of border terrorism.
What are the challenges before Indian policymakers?
Saudi Arabia and Iran have a historic conflict due to sectorial differences of Sunni and Shia respectively. Similarly, the Israel-Palestine issue at the bank of the Mediterranean Sea creates challenges before India in formulating policy. For India, Israel as well as Palestine both are important. Israel has been important due to agricultural, technical, intelligence, and military support. On the other hand, Palestine helps in maintaining good relations in West Asia. India also faces difficulties in testing the suitability of NAM with non-state actors.
Apart from this, there are leadership rivalries in the Middle east. Saudi Arabia with the support of hegemon power (The US), claims leadership. While Turkey claims leadership on the basis of the successor of the Ottoman empire. Similarly, Iran claims leadership on the basis of the Shia way of life. Pakistan is also not behind in this race and claims on the basis of the only nuclear power Islamic country.
Geopolitical rivalries and thrust from hegemon power (the US) create challenges before India’s policymakers. The US pressurizes India for not buying oil from Iran and threatens to impose the sanction. Similarly, the Chinese footprints through the China-Iran agreement to inject up to $400 billion by FDI into the Iranian oil, gas, and petrochemical industries create another cold war type scenario. The surge of non-state actors in the middle east doesn’t fit into India’s moral foreign policy.
Policy options before India
Balancing Saudi Arabia and Iran dynamics
Saudi Arabia and Iran are two major sources of India’s energy sources. Strategically, India has invested in Chahbahar port in Iran. For energy security, India and Iran are parties to the TAPI pipeline program. Iran was one of the first countries which have signed a Friendship Treaty in 1950 with India. Apart from energy security, Saudi has been providing diplomatic support to India over the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir. India and Saudi Arabia jointly set up a gas-based fertilizer plant in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has also promised to invest $100 billion in India. Saudi’s company, Aramco has invested in India’s reliance about nearly $15 billion in 2020. Thus, both countries need to be carefully balanced without hurting each other’s interests. India can follow strategic autonomy. It means alignment should be based on interests instead of any other parameter. India’s policy should be independent for both.
Solving Israel-Palestine puzzle
Till the 1990s, India had not recognized Israel fully and has limited diplomatic relations. In the 21st century, India-Israel proximity has been increasing at a greater pace. But Israel had assisted India in almost all wars against Pakistan and China. After the nuclear test, Israel stood with India against the economic sanction posed by the US. Today from intelligence, defense to agriculture, Israel has been assisting India. For example, Israel has been working with India in the water-stressed region like Bundelkhand.
On the other hand, Palestine is also important for India in maintaining good relations in the middle east. However, initiatives like Abraham Accord have been easing India’s efforts in maintaining good relations. India has the third-largest Muslim population after Indonesia and Pakistan. Internal variables can’t be rejected while policymaking.
For the Israel-Palestine puzzle, India has increased its share from $2 million to $5 million in United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in 2018 to balance Israel. Thus, India needs to continue its welfarist approach in Palestine to balance a new height of India-Israel proximity.
Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and India
The role of OIC is very important to establish diplomatic and economic relations of India with the middle east. Currently, India holds observer status in OIC. India’s growing proximity to the Middle East can be understood from the fact that India’s External Affairs Minister, Late Sushma Swaraj was invited to address in inauguration as a ‘guest of honor’ in 2019. There are some challenges like OIC’s stand on Kashmir has not been in favor of India.
However, OIC leaders frequently address some overlapping areas like peace and security, terrorism, poverty alleviation, and women empowerment. Most of the countries in the middle east awarded Indian PM with the highest civilian award. For example, UAE honored Indian PM with the ‘Order of Zayed’. Similarly, Kuwait has been a reliable and fourth-largest supplier of crude oil to India.
Thus, India needs to adopt an independent policy with every country without harming the interests of the concerned rival countries. Non-state actors in the middle east can be deterred through ‘deterrence by denial.’ This could be possible through increasing massive investments in capacity building and internal balancing of India. Emerging new threats in the middle east can be buck passed by India on the major powers i.e. status-quoist power or revisionist power.
The success of India’s strategic autonomy can be understood from the fact that when an Indian citizen died in a clash between Israel-Palestine escalation 2021, their head of the government made a direct call to their family for condolences. The same thing was seen in the context of a photojournalist who died in Afghanistan-Taliban clashes.
In order to balance India’s relation in West Asia, India needs to balance acts east policy and look west policy. Link west, a new policy is coined to build multi-layered connectivity. Further, there is a need to develop close diplomatic linkages with this region for mutual growth and development.