Author: Manali Joshi
Posted on Qrius | February 24th, 2018


India has a long history of relations with countries in the Middle East, more than any of today’s existing or emerging great powers. Arab traders settled on India’s eastern coast. One of the earliest mosques in the world was built in Kerala in 629 AD. Mughal rule saw the entry of Islam to India on a mass scale. However during and later the independence, India-Middle East relations focused on only economic ties. Political relations were largely defined by War alliances and resentment with Pakistan. During the regime of UPA government, there may have been further reductions in relations, though Indian-Middle East relations have increased since Modi came to power.

Why are the relations significant?

Trade with the GCC countries was worth $137.7 billion in 2014-2015, having grown from $5.5 billion in 2001. By 2015, India and China were becoming the most critical trade and investment partners for the GCC. An important component of this is the labour trade with millions of Indians working in the region. In 2015-2016, remittances from Indian workers in the GCC were worth $35.9 billion. In recent years, he has devoted more time and attention to building relations within the Middle East. For example, in August of 2015, Modi visited the United Arab Emirates. This trip has been viewed as a historic occasion, in particular, because it “marked the first visit in 34 years of an Indian leader to the UAE and Modi’s first official trip anywhere in the Middle East”.
In the recent years, several factors have raised the strategic stakes for India for maintaining good relations with the Middle East countries. Firstly, there is a growing expectation among policymakers that India will eventually become a global strategic power and hence, the existing pillars of the relationship like energy trade, have taken on greater strategic significance. With oil being particularly essential for military power prognosis, India’s already growing dependence on Middle Eastern energy assumes a more strategic dimension. India’s net oil import has grown from 42 percent in 1990 to an estimated 71 percent in 2012. In 2016, over half of India’s oil and gas was imported from the Gulf. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the two countries agreed to transform the buyer-seller relationship into a broader strategic partnership. The joint statement from the visit explicitly linked expanding trade ties to enhanced diplomatic engagement.

Concerns and opportunities

Secondly, India’s security aspirations are growing to protect itself, including the Indian Ocean, from neighbouring nations. A 2013 poll found that 94 percent of Indians feel their country should have the most powerful navy in the Indian Ocean. Security ties with Middle East states are essential to this. India’s growing international trade further increases the importance of protecting sea lanes from the Middle East. Both Congress and BJP administrations have stated the Middle East is strategically interrelated to South Asia. India’s maritime doctrine of 2009 states that the Gulf and the Arabian Sea are vital to India’s interests.
Indian policymakers are also concerned about increasing instability and the weakening of states in the Middle East, which threatens Indian energy imports and diaspora. India’s past inability to influence geopolitics in the Middle East, combined with its lack of security presence, led to costly evacuations of its diaspora. This included the largest evacuation in history when 200,000 Indians were airlifted out of Kuwait during the Gulf War.
Lastly, the increased multi-polarity in the Middle East, with declining of American influence, is providing more room for others. Under Barack Obama’s regime, the US tried to pivot away from the region. Even Donald Trump’s take on Syria is that of an anti-interventionist policy which is influencing the political strategies. Taking advantage of the situation, non-Western powers are intensifying their geopolitical presence. Russia is using its role in Syria as leverage in relations with Western allies such as the Gulf States. Similarly, China is translating its massive economic relationship into strategic ties. It has signed security agreements with Saudi Arabia, in addition to providing diplomatic protection to rivals such as Iran. Beijing sees the Middle East as part of the trade routes it seeks to secure from East Asia to Africa and Europe. These factors further the Middle East’s strategic relevance to India.
In response to these emerging factors from subjugating and trampling India’s influence and security, there has been a massive increase in activity. Mr Modi in the recent years has signed a plethora of bilateral agreements with the Middle East states with a motto of “Think West”. Delhi has signed security and defence agreements with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Israel, Iran and Qatar.

India’s gain through present agreements

Since Mr Modi’s election as the Prime Minister, Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Foreign Minister Swaraj have visited Israel to strengthen the bilateral relationship between India and Israel. The PM also met his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2017, where the prospect of Modi visiting Israel was discussed. All these developments point to the fact that India is keen on developing bilateral relations with Israel, underlining its strategic importance for the country. Bilateral trade between India and Israel is reported to be about $6 billion. A free trade agreement that could further increase trade between the two countries is also being discussed. As far as cooperation in defence is concerned, both nations face threats from terrorism and have signed agreements related to homeland security. India is Israel’s largest buyer of defence equipment. Thus the present contracts clearly show India’s gain is the undisturbed inflow of defence and trade. However, this spurt in relations between India and Israel has not produced any significant changes in India’s foreign policy yet, apart from reports about India’s stance on Palestine. In fact, India continues to build relations with Iran, a country that is not friendly with Israel.
India’s ties with Iran may have caused hiccups in its relations with Israel, but with India’s emergence as a growing economy, it can afford to do business with other nations on its own terms. On February 17, 2018, India and Iran inked nine pacts on Friday after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani held ‘substantive’ talks to boost cooperation. The key pacts signed were in the areas of security, trade and energy as the two leaders deliberated on regional developments during their meeting.
Last year in October, the cabinet cleared India’s investment plan to set up the Chabahar port in Iran. India stands to gain a lot from this development as the port could provide it with a critical transit point to Afghanistan. It is also strategically located, just about 70 km from the China-Pakistan jointly developed Gwadar port. Earlier in December 2014, the Iranian ambassador to India, Gholamreza Ansari, met minister for steel and mines Narendra Singh Tomar and talked about strengthening trade ties between the two countries. Apart from this, if the West eases sanctions on Iran in the future, based on the success of talks pertaining to its nuclear issue, India could further increase oil imports from the OPEC nation. All this suggests that India seems to have got the balancing act right in furthering bilateral relations with both Iran and Israel simultaneously. Both the countries hold a lot of strategic importance for India, economically and geopolitically, and with both nations willing to do business it is up to India to take these relations even further.

The boost in India-UAE ties

The Saudi gesture of inviting India as a Guest of Honour for their national festival of heritage and culture, Janadriyah, last year carries significant diplomatic symbolism, as it unarguably demonstrates the growing importance of India for the Kingdom. After this, King Salman himself is likely to visit India later this year, a rarity as the Saudi King doesn’t undertake too many foreign visits. Saudi Arabia has set up a new embassy building in New Delhi, the largest in India. Significantly, India and Saudi Arabia are rebooting their bilateral relationship in the year 2018, which marks the 70th year of establishment of their diplomatic relations. The India-Saudi Arabia association, which mostly remained confined to an energy-centred partnership for decades, is now being upgraded and transformed into a multi-dimensional one. Therefore, a spike in Saudi Arabia’s political, diplomatic and security engagements with India will mean reduced heft for Pakistan with the Saudis. But this is merely a logical deduction. One will have to wait and see if these benefits percolate down to New Delhi in the near future.
India and the UAE on 25th January last year, decided to expand their bilateral cooperation across sectors including defence and energy. A total of 14 Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) were signed between India and the UAE.
The MoU on defence aims to establish cooperation in the identified fields of defence manufacturing and technology, including through studies, research, development, innovation and collaboration between public and private sector institutions of the two countries. The two countries signed an agreement on Oil Storage and Management between Indian Strategic Petroleum Reserves Ltd and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. This agreement aims to establish a framework for the storage of crude oil by Abu Dhabi National Oil Company in India and to further strengthen the strategic relationship between the two countries in the field of energy.
The two nations also signed a MoU on remedial trade measures and one to enhance bilateral maritime trade ties. This is aimed at strengthening the cooperation in the field of anti-dumping and allied duties through the exchange of information, capacity-building, seminars and training in mutual trade concerns and facilitating maritime transport, free transfer of monies between contracting parties and mutual recognition of ships documents.

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