The current Iraq crisis has brought India’s Middle East policy under the scanner once again. The impotency demonstrated by the Indian government in ensuring the safety of its countrymen stuck in Iraq is just one of the several fallouts of the incongruity in India’s Middle East policy. At a time when the Indian economy is under severe duress, the ramifications of a prolonged crisis in Iraq can prove to be a killer blow. Escalation of crude oil prices is the first cause of worry. While experts have calmed the sense of despair within India by pointing out that the southern part of Iraq, where most of the oil originates from, is secure. However, such volatility will without doubt also affect India’s already weak currency, which in turn will throw a spanner in any budget plans the new government has. And the ‘bitter pill’ Modi warned us about could quickly become toxic. In this light let’s examine what India’s Middle East policy really is, and if it has evolved with time and changing atmosphere in the region, or as most other aspects of India’s foreign policy, has remained stuck in stasis.
The intrinsic connection between India and the Middle East
India and the Middle East are as intrinsically connected as the subcontinent and India. The region is of vital economic importance and shares cultural similarities with India. Security concerns of the region and India also emanate from the same sources. However, New Delhi has never attributed high priority to diplomatic exercises with the region. Over the past decade, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, visited the region on just a handful of occasions – once each to Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman. Of these five visits the first two were to attended summits, and the latter three were bilateral visits. Given India’s strategic stake in the region the number of visits and degree of engagement was insufficient to say the least.
The month-old Modi government has demonstrated a zeal for foreign policy, which is a step in the right direction. However, the Middle East has concerns that need to be addressed. The threat of communal polarisation (or rather majoritarian policies) and BJP’s attitude towards Pakistan are the prime concerns. On both fronts, for the time being, Modi has managed to allay fears. Pakistan, since its inception, and specifically over the past two decades has tried to polarise the Muslim world against India. By inviting Nawaz Sharif to the swearing-in ceremony, Modi has deftly handled the fear of a confrontational attitude towards our neighbour. Having overcome the initial obstacles Modi has demonstrated political finesse. But a job well-begun is only job half-done.
The pro-Cairo policy of the 1950s and 1960s
Independent India recognised the importance of the Middle East from the very beginning. But this recognition wasn’t translated into action adroitly. India refers to the Gulf Countries, West Asian countries and some North African countries as whole as West Asia. Right through the 1950s and 1960s India’s Middle East policy was tied to Cairo. It viewed Egypt as the primary voice of Arab interests. This policy resulted in India supporting Egypt’s (led by Gamal Abdel Nasser) military confrontation with Israel in 1967. Israel won the confrontation, which further reduced Egypt’s clout in Arab politics. India’s close ties with Egypt (secular-nationalist) were directly responsible for its poor relationship with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other conservative regimes during this period. Pakistan gained because of India’s myopic foreign policy, and strengthened its relationship with these regimes. In the late 1960s India finally re-evaluated its pro-Cairo policy, because it was in direct conflict with India’s regional and national interests. India required support on regional issues, like the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan, and were becoming ever dependent on external energy sources. Re-building relations with the Gulf States, especially Iran and Iraq, became inevitable.
It all changed in the 1990s
India’s Middle East policy went into the proverbial fifth-gear in the 1990s. The Gulf War and the Oslo Peace process were the triggers. For the first time in decades a clear divide was visible within the Arab world. The divide centered around two issues – support for the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the dialogue (violent and non-violent) between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). PLO’s support of Iraq and Israel’s peace dialogues with the Arab world allowed India to build diplomatic ties with Israel. Before the 1990s this would have been viewed in a negative perspective. India was able to proceed beyond diplomatic interactions with a select few countries in the Middle East. It developed bilateral relations with most of the major countries in the region.
Another lucky break for India was the opening up of its markets in the 1990s. India’s market, with its humongous population and untapped potential, was an opportunity most countries in the region wanted to explore. Post-liberalisation this became possible. India has now become one of major destination of Middle East exports, and attracts significant investment and aid as well. A recent Pew Research Center study revealed that the largest source of remittances flowing into India is from United Arab Emirates (UAE), which remitted $15 billion to India in 2012. Yes, that’s true. Even the remittance from the U.S. ($11 billion) is behind that from UAE. Of the total $69 billion remittances India received in 2012, $30 billion originated from the Middle East – Saudi Arabia ($8 billion), Kuwait ($3 billion), Oman ($2.6 billion), Qatar ($2.2 billion), and Bahrain ($760 million). This further highlights the importance of the Middle East for India, and its faltering economy. For the Modi government the Middle East will be the key to ensuring that it meets the pre-election promise of ‘achhe din’.
NDA’s Israel fixation
The earlier National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, which was in power between 1998 and 2004, seemed to have a soft-corner for Israel. It was during NDA rule that for the first time an Indian Foreign Affairs minister (Jaswant Singh) visited Tel Aviv, in 2000. Then in 2003 India hosted the Israeli Prime Minister, for the first and so far the only time; also during NDA rule. On several occasions during the past decade BJP had accused the UPA government of neglecting diplomatic engagements with Israel. The situation of the 1990s no longer exists in 2014. A pro-Israel stance is likely to be detrimental to India’s ambition in the region at present. There is a fear that the present NDA government may pick up from where the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government left its Israel plans. The fear is heightened by the fact that Israel is among the few countries that Modi visited during his 12-year long stint as Chief Minister of Gujarat. Modi needs to quell these misperceptions (if that is the case) at the nascent stage. The Israel question will continue to pop-up, and the best way to tackle it would be to ensure that all diplomatic interactions with Israel are done in a transparent manner. Also, we must remember that though Vajpayee’s eagerness to increase engagements with Israel was apparent, it wasn’t the sole agenda on his Middle East policy. Vajpayee had visited Iran and also hosted the Iranian President (Mohammad Khatami) in India. And it was during Vajpayee’s time that India’s productive relation with Riyadh was kick-started.
The ‘Look Middle East’ policy
This year has so far been a very good year, as far as Middle East diplomacy is concerned. In February Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Foreign Minister of Iran, both visited Delhi. Both these countries are critical to India’s economic and security interests. In the 2012-13 India and Saudi Arabia were engaged in trade worth $43 billion. In fact, India is Saudi Arabia’s fifth biggest market for exports, and in turn Saudi Arabia is India’s sixth biggest export market. The defense pact that the two countries signed during this visit was even more crucial. It was an indication that the Indo-Pak issues are no longer a barrier between India and Saudi Arabia. Iran is equally important to India, as it is the second largest supplier of crude oil to India. The reason these two meetings prove that India is finally serious about its diplomatic ties in the Middle East is that in the recent past India’s relation with Iran has been questioned by United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The ‘Look Middle East’ policy, which is on the same lines as the two decade-old ‘Look East’ policy, was reported in the media late last year. Since its initiation in 1992, the ‘Look East’ policy has been one of the cornerstones of India’s foreign policy and is hailed within political circles as a success. India is expected to do trade worth $100 billion by 2015 with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). By 2015 India’s trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which consists of six countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates), is poised to touch $200 billion. This further highlights how crucial the Middle East is to India’s growth. This volume of trade has been achieved without a concerted Middle East policy. And the GCC doesn’t even include Iraq and Iran. Imagine what a concentrated effort will lead to.
The geopolitical realities of the Middle East are constantly transforming. In such a scenario India must avoid, at all costs, situations in which it has to take one side or the other. The long-term Middle East policy goals should be clear, and should dictate every step India takes. Understanding the intricacies of the politics of the region will be crucial. Like it or not, India’s economic growth is tied to its fossil fuel reserves, and the Middle East is the single largest source. India cannot afford to antagonise Iran by portraying an overtly pro-Israel stance. At the same time it can’t present an openly pro-Iran stance either, because it might peeve Saudi Arabia and hamper India’s trade and counter-terrorism initiatives with the country. India has multiple interests in the Middle East. It requires access to fossil fuels, maintain or increase trade, ensure the safety and well-being of the over 7 million strong expatriate population in the region, continue to engage with Israel, limit or prevent after-effects of Shia-Sunni tensions, and more. It is a juggling act; one which India has managed to maintain so far. Hopefully the new ‘Look Middle East’ policy will now allow India to drive these multiple engagements.
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