The region is crucial to India, both strategically and economically, but is often overlooked, writes Kabir Taneja
As India attains the status of the world’s fastest-growing large developing economy, thanks to the market liberalisation that began only in the early 1990s, the Indian people have come to expect the country to play a larger role on the international stage.
While much of India’s diplomatic bandwidth is spent on curtailing political and military threats from neighbouring Pakistan and China, however, regions such as the Middle East gain less public and political attention, despite their utmost importance to the country’s national interests. The three poles of West Asia, as India prefers to call the region – Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel – offer India both a challenge and opportunity.
India’s concerns, specifically terrorism, used to get short shrift among Arab countries. But with global security a fast-growing concern, and the rise of so-called Islamic State making Islamist terrorism a burning issue, New Delhi has managed to gain the attention of Riyadh, Tehran and Tel Aviv (India has not recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital). This has been aided by the shift in the global order towards the East, led by India and China.
Today India has strong bilateral agreements in the region, such as the defence agreement with Qatar, which stops just short of allowing it to place troops in the country; intelligence sharing with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Israel; and economic investments across the board from Tel Aviv to Tehran. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have over the past two years deported persons of interest wanted by India for terror-related charges, a transaction that would not have been possible just a few years ago.
These initial steps show a more confident approach by India towards the region and its actors, backed by a strong economy, political will and military – specifically naval – strength. Nonetheless, India’s current engagement with the Middle East remains inadequate in comparison to the critical interest it has in the region’s stability, starting with demographics.
There are more than 8 million Indians (or people of Indian origin) working in the larger Middle East region. During the Gulf War and more recently the Yemen crisis, the Indian government successfully managed to evacuate thousands of its citizens from these conflict zones. In Yemen in 2015, New Delhi managed to negotiate a halt in hostilities between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels around Sana’a airport to allow Air India and Indian Air Force planes to run relief flights. However, it would be next to impossible to evacuate all Indian citizens in the event of a wider conflict within the Middle East, making stability in this restive region critical for India’s domestic politics as well.
The economic prosperity of the region is equally important to India. The Indian workforce in the Middle East sends home more than $50 billion a year in remittances. Not only would the loss of this amount in the event of a serious Middle East conflict be a major blow to the exchequer’s annual budgets, India would face a herculean task in reintegrating thousands of returning labourers and professionals into an economy which is already struggling to provide organised employment for one of the youngest populations on the planet.
Energy constitutes another vital strategic interest for India, which lacks adequate supplies of oil and gas. The country imports nearly 70 per cent of its annual oil requirements and more than 55 per cent of natural gas supplies. A fifth of India’s oil comes from the Middle East, often hedged between various states in the Gulf and Iran, on opposite sides of the Shia-Sunni divide.
All these factors demand greater political and diplomatic involvement with the Middle East, especially if India has ambitions to be a world power. Even more so with the issue of terrorism weighing so heavily, and as New Delhi tries to push the Gulf nations over their historic pro-Pakistan alignment. Yet the instinct to avoid engagement remains strong, as demonstrated by India’s reactions to the Syrian crisis over the past four years.
Many ask why India should react to the Syrian war at all, arguing it has no role to play, and should stay out of what is seen as the Middle East mess. Despite mass atrocities committed by both the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the rebel groups, along with the ever-looming presence of Islamic State, India has steered clear of any firm stance. Buried under diplomatic jargon in the occasional statement, however, New Delhi has given support to Assad’s regime and Russia’s intervention in the conflict, despite maintaining that no military solution can solve the Syrian war.
If that seemed self-contradictory and feeble, India stopped short of condemning the Assad government even after chemical weapons were used in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in north-western Syria. Only after a reporter prodded the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, Gopal Baglay, was there an official reaction, and even then he made no acknowledgement of the humanitarian tragedy. ‘India is a signatory to the chemical weapons convention,’ Baglay said stoically. ‘It has been our consistent position that the use of chemical weapons by anyone anywhere under any circumstances should not happen.’
India’s distance on the Syrian crisis, even after it participated in the second round of Geneva peace talks, is intended to maintain New Delhi’s narrative that there is no such thing as a ‘good terrorist and bad terrorist’. However, it is entirely possible to hold this position while condemning atrocities. This would bolster India’s standing on the global stage – its current style of ambiguity does not support the ambitions of its citizens.
Stability in the Middle East is going to become more critical for India than the West in the future. Even though the US will maintain a military presence there, it is possible that India will be asked at some point by Arab states to mediate or even intervene in a regional crisis, filling the gap left by retreating Western interests. Perhaps to avoid such an eventuality, New Delhi, despite being the world’s largest democracy, is happy to support even dictators as long as stability is maintained and short-term interests are served.