New challenges amidst regional rivalries

G. Parthasarathy evaluates India’s shifting relationships with the nations of West Asia in an ever evolving global environment

India is facing innumerable diplomatic challenges in dealing with countries across the Arabian Sea, a region referred to in India as West Asia and by the West as the Middle East.

While the Israeli-Palestinian issue figured prominently in earlier years, Indian policies have evolved substantially over the past two decades. As well as enjoying good relations with the State of Israel, India recognises the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, headed by its President Mehmood Abbas, as the Sovereign Palestinian Authority. New Delhi holds that territorial disputes between Israel and the Palestinian Authority should be settled under the provisions of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and Prime Minister Modi has paid official visits to both Jerusalem and Ramallah. India realises that the US alone wields the influence to move both parties to a settlement, while noting that the Palestinians can hardly regard President Trump as a ‘Good Samaritan’.

India did not favour foreign interference in Syria’s internal affairs and has maintained friendly diplomatic ties with the Assad Government in Damascus.

It is with the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf region, however, that India has its most crucial strategic and economic ties. India gets 70 per cent of its oil supplies from this region, where 7 million Indians live, remitting home around $50 billion annually. In recent years growing friendship, mutual trust and cooperation have marked relations between India and the Arab Gulf monarchies. Prime Minister Modi has taken a personal interest in building new bridges of cooperation with these sheikhdoms, focusing particular attention on ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where over 4 million Indians reside and work. The UAE leadership has shown special regard for India by recently issuing an unprecedented invitation to Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj to participate in a meeting of Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Dubai.

India did not favour foreign interference in Syria’s internal affairs

With Oman, India’s traditionally good relations, dating back to the colonial era, continue. However, Qatar, despite having traditionally been a major supplier of natural gas to India, is now showing signs of an uneasy relationship with its erstwhile trading partner, evidently because of Delhi’s close ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, with which Qatar has more frosty relations. Given these differences between the Gulf Arab monarchies, India is going slow on a proposal for a Free Trade Agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council, which links the Gulf Arab monarchies economically.

Still, India’s trade and investment ties are significantly improving with virtually all GCC countries.With arrangements now in place for closer cooperation between the Indian Navy’s Western Fleet and the Bahrain-based US Fifth Fleet, the trade routes of Gulf countries across the Indian Ocean to Southeast and East Asia are more secure.

Energy cooperation between India on the one hand and the UAE and Saudi Arabia on the other is also set to expand significantly. Saudi Arabia is envisaging investments in India amounting to over $100 billion, in energy, infrastructure, minerals and mining. These investments will primarily be in India’s value chain, ranging from oil supply, marketing and refining, to petrochemicals and lubricants. They are closely linked to Saudi Aramco’s global downstream strategy. A major project will be a $44 billion investment in a refinery and petrochemical project on India’s west coast. The UAE will also be investing and cooperating in India’s petrochemical sector.Such investments will give a boost to India’s exports of refined petroleum products, which now amount to $44 billion annually.

Further east, India has long regarded Iran as a security partner, especially from the period when the two countries cooperated in backing Afghanistan’sNorthern Alliance to counter and resist Taliban rule in Afghanistan. India continued to back Iran in the face of western, American-led sanctions. The two countries then concluded an agreement to build the Chabahar Port in Iran as a nodal transit point, linking India to Afghanistan and Central Asia. India and Afghanistan approached the Trump Administration to exempt the Chabahar Port from US sanctions, which was agreed to. Despite this, Iran appears uncertain about ties with India, which has not been buying Iranian petroleum products since the re-imposition of American sanctions. Recent Iranian statements on India’s internal affairs have not been welcomed in India.

New Delhi recognises that the besieged regime in Tehran is facing serious internal tensions. These arise from public disaffection,in the wake of spiralling inflation and shortages of essential consumer products, which have accompanied President Trump’s sanctions on Iran. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards – Iran’s most potent organisation for its internal security and military interventions abroad, whether in Lebanon, Syria or Iraq– have been called out by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to quell the rioting, and hundreds of Iranians have been killed in demonstrations against the clerical regime.

The recent demonstrations in Iraq that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi were triggered by public anger against the interference in Iraq’s internal affairs by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Tehranhas, however, derived considerable strategic advantage by opposing the Saudi intervention in Yemen, with some success, and has also demonstrated the efficacy of its strategic missile capabilities with the attack on Saudi Arabia’s vital Aramco oil refinery, in which it predictably denied any involvement.

With Russia now the world’s third largest producer of oil after the US and Saudi Arabia, the Russians have substantial clout in determining the pattern of global energy developments and prices. India has longmaintained energy cooperation with the Russians, whichis set to expand after Mr Modi’s recent visit to the eastern borders of Russia. The OPEC countries, therefore, can no longer hold oil-importing countries to ransom, as they were oncegiven to doing.

The world energy situation will certainly improve further once the United States ends it unilateral sanctions on Venezuela and Iran.The emergence of the US and Russia amongst the world’s largest producers of oil has cushioned oil importing countries like India against moves by OPEC countries to arbitrarily and exorbitantly raise oil prices.

G. Parthasarathy, a career Foreign Service Officer, is currently Chancellor of the Central University of Jammu and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. He previously served as Ambassador of India to Myanmar, High Commissioner of India to Australia, Pakistan and Cyprus, and Spokesman of the Prime Minister’s Office

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