As the strategic scenario changes in the Gulf region, G Parthasarathy assesses the Indian government’s need to focus attention across its western borders.
In his first year in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi focused substantial attention on developing and strengthening relations with India’s South Asian neighbours. He also interacted bilaterally and in regional groupings like the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit, with countries in India’s eastern neighbourhood ranging from Myanmar and Singapore to China, Japan and South Korea. This involved a delicate balancing between an increasingly assertive China on the one hand and its maritime neighbours such as Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia on the other. Mr Modi was defining and initiating a clearly more active role for India across what is now referred to as the Indo-Pacific Region.
Having set the contours of an ‘Act East’ policy over the past year, there are indications that the Modi Government realises it cannot afford to ignore developments beyond its western borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan. After an initial thrust to make it clear that new momentum would be given to ties with Israel, there now appears to be a growing realisation of the need to put India’s relations on an even keel with the Islamic world, primarily in the Persian Gulf. While stressing the need for Israel to live within secure and recognised frontiers, there is realisation that India cannot overlook the importance of reiterating its support for the establishment of a viable Palestinian State, living at peace with Israel. President Pranab Mukherjee will soon combine a visit to Jordan and Israel with a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at Ramallah.
In a larger perspective, India’s crucial interests in the Islamic world to its west are primarily centred on its relations with the six Arab Gulf States-Oman, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar-which are strategically interlinked in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Around seven million Indian nationals live in these Arab monarchies, from where India gets around 70 per cent of its oil supplies. Indians in the Gulf Arab States remit back around $40 billion annually to their homes in India. India’s energy security and the welfare of its nationals are crucially dependent on the stability of these Arab States, which are now feeling increasingly insecure, after the US-Iranian nuclear deal and the impending end of nuclear sanctions on Iran. While India will steer clear of civilisational and sectarian rivalries in the Islamic world, it cannot afford to see stability threatened in the Gulf Arab States by the growing influence of ISIL across the region. It was against this background that, following detailed and discreet discussions with the leadership of the UAE and its Arab neighbours, Prime Minister Modi embarked on what is regarded as a path-breaking visit to the UAE on August 16-18.
The outcome of Mr Modi’s visit to the United Arab Emirates surprised people not only in India but also across India’s entire western neighbourhood. It was no secret that relations with the UAE over the past two decades have been correct and cordial, but not necessarily close. The UAE was perceived as a country where a most wanted terrorist, Dawood Ibrahim, celebrated the marriage of his daughter and where no effective action was taken to end the 1999 hijacking of IC 814. This was quite different from the actions of the UAE in August 1984, when the UAE authorities not only ended the hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft, but also repatriated the hijackers back to India. India realises that the warmth generated in the UAE following the visit of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1981 was largely frittered away by its relative neglect thereafter of this important relationship.
Not only was Mr Modi personally received and hosted by the Crown Prince (in the absence of the ruler, who has been unwell), but the reception he got, including an opportunity to address a mass gathering of Indians in Dubai, was unprecedented. The visit produced agreements to jointly fight terrorism through intelligence sharing, with an agreement to ‘work together to promote peace, reconciliation, stability, inclusiveness and cooperation in the wider South Asia, Gulf and West Asia region’. Defence ties are set to be enhanced through regular exercises and training of naval, air, land, Special Forces and coastal defence. These developments are seen as the beginnings of a new ‘Look West’ policy by the Modi Government, aimed at extending India’s strategic reach across the oil-rich Arab/Persian Gulf. In the near future Mr Modi is also expected to visit Saudi Arabia, with whom relations have improved significantly after the visit of King Abdullah to India in 2006.
Prime Minister Modi had earlier informed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Ufa that he looks forward to visiting Iran. India’s economic interaction with Iran, including oil imports, have declined in recent years and major exports of finished petroleum products, amounting to around $1 billion annually, have ended because of growing international sanctions against Iran. These sanctions also jeopardised prospects for moving ahead and implementing projects for oil and gas exploration by Indian oil companies. Realists in India, however, realise that there has been a history of Iran backing off from economic project deals, which appeared to be at an advanced stage. Culturally, the Iranians look up to Western countries and tend to be dismissive of Asian partners, though Japan and China will remain exceptions. India, in turn, is likely to increasingly link oil and gas imports from Iran to investment opportunities that Iran provides for Indian companies. With Iraqi oil production steadily rising, the world is mercifully free from OPEC blackmail and a major buyer like India can and should leverage this situation to its advantage.
There have long been reports of clandestine contacts between the Saudis and Israel. These contacts are becoming more open after the end of nuclear sanctions on Iran. Around two months ago, senior officials from Saudi Arabia and Israel met in Lucknow, the capital of the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh. Shia leaders, intellectuals and teachers from a Shia madrassa in Lucknow hosted them. Quite obviously, those who matter in New Delhi were not unaware of what was happening. The Lucknow Shias are reported to have expressed concern about Wahhabi extremism, while both the Israelis and Saudis expressed happiness over the meetings. India appears to have positioned itself well as a country unaffected by sectarian tensions prevalent across the Islamic world.
Given the regional security situation, an undersea gas pipeline between India and Iran would be preferable to a pipeline through politically volatile Pakistan. Moreover, while India has cooperated closely with Iran, which shared its aversion to Taliban rule in Afghanistan, one has to wait and see how Iran reacts to emerging developments in Afghanistan. Iran will, in any case, remain a crucial partner for India’s access to Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Caspian Sea, through Chahbahar and Bandar Abbas. It also serves as a formidable barrier to the eastwards penetration of ISIS.