India, and a West Asia in flux

India’s interaction with West Asia and specifically with the Arab Peninsula has witnessed substantial activity over the past three weeks. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a detailed telephonic conversation with the ruler of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani on December 8. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar visited Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the last week of November. Army chief General MM Naravane began a visit to the UAE and Saudi Arabia on December 9 and India and Israel held ‘foreign office consultations’ on December 7. This extent of activity in such a brief period reflects the importance that India attaches to a region where it has great stakes. Equally, it demonstrates the countries of the region place great significance to their ties with India. It is noteworthy that these interactions have taken place at a time of change in West Asia.

Some Arab peninsula countries are re-orienting their foreign policies, giving up long-held positions. In the middle of September, the foreign ministers of the UAE and Bahrain met Israel’s prime minister at the White House in Washington to sign documents establishing diplomatic relations between them and Israel. The UAE went further than Bahrain to normalise ties with the Jewish state. The venue of the meeting ensured the presence of President Donald Trump who naturally took credit for this historic development. Bahrain and the UAE became the third and fourth Arab states to turn their back on the traditional position of the Arab states not to recognise Israel until a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian dispute was reached—Egypt and Jordan were the first and second Arab countries to establish ties with Israel in 1980 and 1994 respectively.

While Saudi Arabia did not formally move to recognise Israel, it is widely believed that it maintains below the surface links with it. As home of the holiest places of Islam Saudi Arabia has traditionally enjoyed great status in the Muslim world. In the past they were in the forefront of support for the Palestinian cause. However, over the years the sectarian divisions in West Asia have, despite the protestations of the regional countries to the contrary, reduced the priority of the Palestinian problem. These sectarian conflicts have led the Sunni states to feel threatened by Iran.

Israel too considers Iran to be its principal enemy. It is clear that the common perception of Iran being a great threat has drawn some of the Sunni Arab peninsula countries towards Israel with the encouragement of the United States especially under the Trump administration. This is because, for Trump, Iran is a rogue state. He reversed his predecessor Barack Obama’s approach towards West Asia. In exchange for Iran ostensibly giving up nuclear weapons Obama had given up attempts to curtail Iran’s role in the region. Trump abandoned the Iran nuclear deal and not only re-imposed sanctions on Iran but augmented them in the hope that with increasing deprivation the Iranian people would become hostile to the clerical order and that would pave the way for regime change in the principal Shia state of the world.

As Vice-President Joe Biden had supported President Obama’s West Asia policy. It is now anticipated that he would seek to return to the Iran nuclear deal, perhaps with some changes. That would lift the restraints on Iran’s regional role and would change equations in the Arab peninsula. As it is the difficulties that had existed between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other are in the process of being resolved. This rift had led to Qatar getting close to Turkey and Iran. The emerging scene is therefore going to be somewhat fluid in the Arab peninsula.

Amidst these changes India’s position in West Asia and in particular in the Arab peninsula continues to remain strong. It is perceived as a major global country and the peninsula Arab states wish to develop comprehensive ties with it. Wisely, India has refrained from getting caught in the contradictions of the region by focussing on developing cooperative bilateral ties with all regional countries. This was also reflected in the discussions which Modi, Jaishankar and senior Indian officials recently had with their counterparts.

There are some common themes in the discussions of the Indian leaders with their counterparts in Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE. These relate to cooperation in hydrocarbons, trade, in respect of investments by these countries of their surplus funds in India. These countries are also engaging with India in select high technology areas. In addition, there is increasing interaction in the defence field. It is here that the Indian army chief’s visit to the UAE and Saudi Arabia assumes significance. This is particularly so for he is the first Indian army chief to tour these countries. His visit will no doubt be closely monitored by the regional and by India’s neighbours. It comes in the background of difficulties in Pakistan’s ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This also shows that notwithstanding the approach of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation on certain sensitive issues pertaining to India many of its member-states desire to enhance ties with it in crucial areas such as defence and security.

India’s latest official level talks with Israel reviewed the large and deep ambit of cooperation between the two countries. This will deepen because of congruent bilateral interests in many areas. There is special potential for mutual benefit in high technology applications in agriculture and industry. While upgrading its relations with Israel India has to maintain its traditional positive ties with the Palestinians.