international analysis and commentary

India’s Middle Path in the Middle East


Few Asian countries have had as long and sustained a historical engagement with the Middle East as India. One of mankind’s oldest maritime trading routes ran from ancient Sumeria via Bahrain to the civilization of the Indus Valley. Imperial Britain’s Persian Gulf interests were managed through India and at that time countries like Kuwait and Oman used the rupee as tender.

India’s present policy towards the region has many layers. In one respect it has not changed over the millennia: New Delhi’s focus is almost exclusively on the Persian Gulf, with only minimal interest in the Maghreb and the Levant. But its interests and capabilities have been growing slowly across the board, though it continues to feel the region is too volatile for India to seek an active geopolitical involvement in it.

At stake are two key economic interests for India. First of all, the Gulf countries host six to seven million Indians, the largest such diaspora in the world. This diaspora remits $33 to 35 billion back to India every year. Secondly, roughly three-quarters of India’s oil imports and almost all of its natural gas exports come from this region.

More recently, a third, sectarian issue has been introduced into the equation: Indian concerns about rising Sunni-Shia Muslim tensions in the Middle East and the possibility this might spread to its own Muslim community. India is home to the third largest Sunni and the third largest Shia populations in the world.As a senior Indian diplomat said publicly in January, “West Asia is part of our extended neighborhood and as such continued peace and stability in the region is in our strategic interest.”

New Delhi has thus cultivated a number of important bilateral relations in the region. At present, these include Israel, Iran and some of the Gulf monarchies. Partly because all these relationships are so strong and it would prefer not to have to choose between them, India avoids playing a larger Middle East role.

Bilateral Ties

Israel is probably the closest Middle Eastern friend that India has today. This was not always the case: the two countries normalized diplomatic relations only in 1992. Today, however, India is the single largest buyer of Israeli arms and the only country with which it cooperates on military nuclear technology. New Delhi remains a supporter of Palestinian statehood but its ardor has cooled as Palestinian nationalism has become increasingly tainted with Islamicism. India also maintains close relations with Iran, though they are far less strategic in nature. The interests of the two converge the most in their mutual suspicion of Pakistan and their concerns about militant Sunni groups like the Taliban or the Islamic State. But India has been critical of Iran’s nuclear program, branding it “illegal”. Nonetheless, it has opposed the imposition of economic sanctions and the isolation of Iran in other ways. Indian officials tend to dismiss talk of having any real influence on Tehran but New Delhi is one of the few foreign governments that maintain a direct line to Ayatollah Sayeed Hossein Ali Khamanei. Therefore it has repeatedly tried to serve as a bridge between Iran and the West.

More recently, India’s relations with the Arab Gulf states have also increased both in breadth and depth.The economic relationship was always a given. Taken as a region, West Asia is easily India’s largest trading partner,asIndia imports gas from Qatar and oilfrom Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, while Indian corporations’ use Dubai as an offshore financial hub.However, for a long time, there was minimal strategic cooperation. India has long seen Saudi Arabia as an ideological fount of the forms of radical Islam it has sought to keep off its soil. Additionally, the strong connections between the Arab monarchies in the region and Pakistan have not been viewed favorably. The closest Arab country to India is the relatively liberal but resource-poor sultanate of Oman.

This aloofness has begun to change in recent times, helped by the shifting geopolitical landscape of the Gulf region. Led by the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf countries have begun to seek a closer strategic relationship with India, urging closer military ties, helping out on the counterterrorism front and increasing high-level political engagement. This is partly driven by these countries disenchantment with Pakistan, partly by India’s economic trajectory, but also by a desire to hedge their position in theIndian Ocean, siding with the number two military power in that region at a time that the number one power, the United States, is showing less and less interest in being the Gulf’s policeman.

Keeping a Distance

To simultaneously maintain all these multiple relationships, India has also had to carefully step over the region’s many fault lines. Because of its overriding interest in Gulf stability, India has had an unspoken preference for dictators and kings over volatile popular regimes. It is skepticalthat secularism can thrive here in a democratic context – and fears that a less secular Middle East will mean a more radicalized one. New Delhi has been less than pleased with Western experiments with the Arab polity, whether overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq or supporting the popular revolts of the Arab Spring. A government statement on India’s Middle East policy noted recently, “After almost five years of ‘Arab Spring’ in the region, the earlier exaggerated expectations of progress towards democracy have turned out to be misplaced. On the whole, developments over the last few years have exacerbated the regional fault lines, accentuated regional rivalries with competing ideologies and skewed the regional balance of power.”

Given its diaspora, its energy needs and its terrorism concerns, New Delhi prefers to remain passively on the Middle East’s margins. Nonetheless, with Middle East showing more interest in India, New Delhi has not been above levering this to its benefit. It has exploited the opportunity in three ways.

One, it has sought to dilute Pakistan’s influence in the Gulf region. This has proved successful with the UAE and, to some extent, Saudi Arabia – both of whom have been long-standing backers of Pakistan’s military.Two, it has sought to better its energy position with its Middle Eastern suppliers, renegotiating prices and trying to increase its equity holdings in oil and gasfields across the region. The latter has been of limited success largely because India’s oil and gas firms are relatively small in size – and many have preferred to seek energy assets in Africa and Southeast Asia. But Qatar, the provider of 95 per cent of India’s imported gas, just agreed to slash its natural gas prices by half.Three, India has been seeking better counterterrorism cooperation from the countries in the region, both for preventive reasons against the Islamic State and in pursuit of a more proactive approach against Afghanistan-Pakistan based terror groups. That it now receives active intelligence cooperation from close friends of Islamabad like Riyadh is seen as a major success in New Delhi.

However, India has declined to involve itself in the larger role of trying to stabilize the Middle East. This is seen as well beyond its strategic ambit. It believes it can ill afford to be involved in sectarian conflicts in places as far away as Syria. Instead it publicly and privately continues to urge the US to remain engaged there, calculating Washington is still the only external power capable of restoring some order to the region. It is not overly concerned about China’s geopolitical presence in West Asia: the Chinese are tone deaf to Arab Muslim cultural mores and are geographically too far to be really interested. Beijing, in fact, has been urging India to become more active in the region.

Conscious of criticism, even from Middle Eastern countries, that it could do more, India argues it is doing more than ever but is constrained on a number of fronts. The Indian senior diplomat said in January, “It needs to be understood that ‘old order neutrality’ is not construed as absence of decision-making or political passivity. In fact, we are more engaged in the region than in the past.

India has been asked to play more active role in the Middle East but we need to assess this based on our strategic leverages and realistic consideration of our strengths and limitations. We would not wish to create parallel mechanisms that will affect our bilateral relations.” As a US diplomat privately put it, “India is a strategic partner to both Iran and Israel, and neither of them object, and that is an accomplishment of sorts.”