On March 22, 2018, Indian national carrier Air India made a historical flight from Delhi to Tel Aviv, flying straight over Saudi Arabian airspace. Israel has no diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. While there was initial denial by Saudi authorities and silence from Air India, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confidently asserted that the flights would commence soon. And soon they did. What do they testify to? Consider that the Israeli national carrier that flies to Mumbai from Tel Aviv takes almost three hours longer to navigate the flight precisely because it cannot fly over Saudi airspace — which is the shortest route to India. Besides hinting at the covert warming of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, it would not be remiss to say that the flights do testify to India’s growing diplomatic clout in the Middle East.
For instance, after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic visit to Israel and then Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Delhi in January this year, India soon hosted successfully a visit by Iranian President Hasan Rouhani while Modi made yet another historical trip to the region — to Ramallah in the West Bank, the official headquarters of the Palestinian government, followed by a second visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Even as Netanyahu was hard selling Israeli defense equipment in Delhi, the UAE was gearing up to welcome Modi as the guest of honor at the World Government Summit in the UAE in February, while the Saudi media reflected on the wisdom of having India as a guest of honor at the Janadriya festival — Saudi Arabia’s largest cultural extravaganza. And Netanyahu’s much publicized visit was not deterred by India’s anti-Israel vote on Jerusalem in the UN General Assembly just a month before. UAE Minister Mohammed Bin Abdullah Al Gergawi said: “India has had a big role in space, digital revolution and human resources. We want to benefit from India’s experiences to be able to develop people’s quality of life.”
All of this demonstrates unmistakably how slowly but surely India is making its mark on a region scarred by war, seismic geopolitical shifts, religious radicalism and terrorism; using judiciously to its advantage a variety of factors — historical legacy, geo-political shifts, changing strategic calculus, and adroit diplomacy by India, especially under the current government of Narendra Modi who has imparted to it a personalized style.
Ties between the subcontinent and the Middle East, especially the Arab Gulf region, have been close for centuries. Arab traders and travelers carried ideas and concepts from India to the West which were then repackaged and reintroduced back to the Eastern world. During British colonial rule, it was from then-Calcutta that the British administered much of their territories east of the Suez. Many Indians were taken to the region to serve as clerks and bureaucrats, introducing Indian labor in the region. Later, this peaked during the oil boom and the construction and development spree that the Gulf region witnessed in the 1970s and 80s. India supplied a steady stream of blue collared workers (as well as white collared ones) who distinguished themselves with their cheap labor, professionalism, low profile and exemplary conduct in their host countries.
Today, around 7 million Indians live and work in the Gulf and remit back home about USD 40 billion. These contacts played a vital role in deepening ties between India and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Trust between the sides was further reinforced and bolstered during the first Gulf War, when many expatriate workers from the Arab world in the GCC were expelled for taking up subversive positions. The void left behind were quickly filled in by Indians who began to be increasingly preferred to their Arab counterparts, having proved themselves to be politically neutral and un-interfering in the political life of their host countries.
Similarly with Iran, India shares centuries old civilizational ties which have continued under different regimes and in fact strengthened over time. India’s Shia Muslim population, accounting for the world’s second largest Shia population, look towards Iran as the spiritual guide.
Here two events stand out. As the Cold War ended and with its economic liberalization in the 1990s, the Indian economy began integrating with the global economy, its stature as an economic powerhouse and a hub of services, especially Information Technology, began to be acknowledged by the GCC countries. Its vast market became a coveted destination for foreign investors, as well as for defense exporting countries like Israel.
Defense cooperation between India and the GCC countries began way back in 2003, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and have continued steadily.
The other was the 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001 that heavily strained US-Saudi and thereafter US-Gulf relations. Ginu Zachariah Oomen, an Indian West Asian expert and currently a member of the Kerala Public Services Commission, says that: ‘The geo-political churnings in West Asia especially, the war on terror by the US-led allies have led to some reorientation in Saudi’s foreign policy. American rhetoric of democracy and the regime change in the Gulf States … altered the pro-Western perceptions of Saudis to a great extent.”
Moreover, the fastest economic growth in India and China and the emerging Asian market marked a significant change in the Saudis’ foreign policy towards Asia. It is against this backdrop that the GCC countries began developing their “Look East policy,” and then Saudi King Abdullah paid a historic visit to India in 2006. With the Saudis in the vanguard, other GCC countries too, began looking for non-Western economies to invest their surplus funds and diversify their petroleum-based economies. India provided a welcome avenue.
Today, India’s Joint Investment Fund with Oman has launched Fund II with the target corpus of USD 300 million, while the first closed at USD 220 million; it has set up a up a Joint USD 75 billion National Infrastructure Investment Fund with the UAE. Meanwhile, rival Qatar is negotiating to start an airline in India, while Oman is wooing Indian participation in the Duqm port which it is currently developing into an economic hub.
More recently, the Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd, a consortium of major Indian oil companies, signed an agreement with Saudi Aramco to jointly develop and build an integrated mega refinery and petrochemicals complex. President & CEO of Saudi Aramco Amin H. Nasser has gone on record to say that: “Investing in India is a key part of Saudi Aramco’s global downstream strategy, and another milestone in our growing relationship with India.”
That Nasser’s words came soon after Iranian foreign minister Javed Zareef paid a visit to India to argue Iran’s case against the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, and Indian External Affairs Minister categorically stated that India would follow only UN sanctions and not those imposed by individual countries, is proof that India’s diplomatic outreach with rival countries would not impede bilateral ties. It is proof also that India has acquired the diplomatic and economic heft to pursue bilateral ties with countries on their own merit.
With the deepening Iran-Arab rivalry, India was courted by both sides. Both remain important sources for India’s energy requirements — a third of India’s energy resources are sourced from the region and Iran is India’s third largest supplier after Iraq and Saudi Arabia. While under US pressure India had to scale down its engagement with Iran during the sanctions regime, after the signing of the JCPOA between Iran and USA, Russia, France, Germany, UK, China, India once again increased its oil and gas supplies from Iran and began negotiations to acquire gas fields from it. Meanwhile, transit routes through Iran to Afghanistan and Central Asia bypassing India’s arch-rival Pakistan also make Iran indispensable for India’s strategic objectives. While renewed US sanctions on Iran will no doubt impact private business, India’s oil imports from Iran have surged to their highest since 2016. Hence India continues to cultivate strong ties with Iran whose lucrative market is not lost on the former.
Just as it is not lost on the other power center in the Middle East — Israel. India has been actively pursuing relations with the Jewish state in multiple areas — agriculture, irrigation, science and technology, and most importantly defense. India-Israel relations have never been stronger and are expected to endure as India has emerged as Israel’s largest arms market. While Modi and Netanyahu share a vibrant personal rapport, the Israeli media speculated much on Modi’s visit to Ramallah, and India-Iranian relations. But equally important for Israel has been the news that India will be endorsing the SPIKE missile deal which will be one of the largest defense deals in Israel’s history.
The covert cooperation between Israel and the Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt, has also meant that deepening ties with Israel would not alienate India from the Arab world. In fact, the threat of terrorism, including the seaborne kind witnessed during the horrific Mumbai attacks of 2008, have necessitated close cooperation in counter-terrorism and intelligence sharing between India and the GCC countries, while marking a distance between the latter and their traditional Islamic ally, Pakistan, because of its established complicity in abetting and harboring terrorist groups on its territory.
Defense cooperation between India and the GCC countries began way back in 2003, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and have continued steadily. Cooperation has now expanded to intelligence sharing, counter-terrorism operations and extraditions from countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE of terrorists wanted by India, including those with Pakistani passports, much to the chagrin of Pakistan, India’s arch-rival and once a close military ally of the Gulf countries. All the GCC countries, for instance, support the India-proposed Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.
In fact, it will not be an exaggeration to say that India’s Middle East policy has emerged as the most enduring foreign policy success of the incumbent government, deftly balancing and following its much-cherished strategic autonomy vis-a-vis the multiple power centers and rivalries in the region. How it will now balance the re-imposition of US sanctions on Iran in this last year of government remains to be seen.