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Growing Potential in India's Relations with the Middle East

27 Aug 2021
By Omair Anas

Under Narendra Modi’s leadership, tensions between Hindu and Muslim Indians have swelled. Outside, however, India’s relations with Middle Eastern states have long been on the upswing, with the Gulf included in India’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Modi and other Indian ministers have visited the Middle East more frequently than their predecessors. While the initial years of Modi’s leadership focused on exploring the possibilities and prospects, and both sides felt a sense of rejuvenation, the actual outcome of the much talked about Middle East policy have not yet come. In fact, now there is a sense of disappointment gradually seeping into their diplomatic interactions. India’s Middle East relations are being balanced with changing domestic and global strategic narratives. The inward-looking nationalists of right wing groups have come to power with massive majority when India’s global challenges and ambitions have already demanded a new approach.

The end of the Cold War was accompanied by significant changes in India’s domestic politics, including the rise of right-wing politics and the end of the dominance of the Indian National Congress. Mostly inspired or controlled by the Rashtriya Swaym Sewak Sangh (RSS), right-wing groups like the Bhartiya Jana Sangh, Hindu Mahasabha, and Bhartiya Janta Party have been fundamentally opposed to Jawaharlal Nehru’s Non-Aligned foreign policy, and instead want an “independent foreign policy.” They didn’t like Communism, seeing it as a major internal security problem. Their only problem with the United States was its close military alliance with Pakistan. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, remained a committed strategic partner in all of its conflicts with India and China.

The right-wing parties were ready to accept the non-aligned movement as one of the principles, but not as an “absolute principle,” as Balraj Madhok explained the foreign policy agenda of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1966. Israel’s providing weapons to the Indian forces during the 1962 war with China resonates in the right wing’s demands to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel. Here came three key issues that concerned India’s relations with the Middle East: the pro-Pakistan approach of most West Asian and Muslim countries; India’s support of Arab countries against Israel; and India’s overall neglect of Asian countries. However, India’s dependence on Arab states for its energy security, billion-dollar remittances from its seven million foreign workers, and international maritime security have been the real issues that still define India’s strategic limitations in the Middle East.

The end of the Cold War has changed some of the assumptions on which India’s Middle East policy was based, among them, the Palestinian problem would always remain a touchstone of the Arab states’ foreign relations. The Soviet Union declined in the international balance of power, and more so in India’s Central Asian neighbourhood. The new opportunities offered by the end of the Cold War were not just about economic liberalisation, but also readjusting India’s strategic vision. In the changed international relations, India’s right and centrist parties differed little, and hence the right-wing groups were better at communicating the need for change to the Indian voters. Leaders from the RSS played an important role in establishing full diplomatic ties between India and Israel in 1991. Congress convinced key Arab countries on why it had established full diplomatic relations.

With Narendra Modi in power in May 2014, most Arab states were wary of the future of India-Arab relations. However, Modi surprised both his Hindu nationalist supporters and the Arab governments by investing personal effort in changing the transactional nature of Indo-Arab relations in order to build strategic partnerships. Despite very strong pro-Israel sentiments among his supporters, Modi has not changed India’s Palestine policy. India is committed to the two states solution, with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.

India’s Middle East policy has a challenge beyond its domestic ideological faultiness. First, the Indian state in general and the Modi government lack a well-defined, sustainable strategic outlook towards the Middle East. This appears in their prolonged reluctance to make quick decisions when the region faces a rapid and fundamental change in its strategic and security environment. The Gulf monarchies are now disappointed with any prospects of close defence ties between India and the Gulf States. They are looking toward China, Russia, or Turkey to fill the vacuum left by the US withdrawal from the region.

Second, there is still confusion amongst the ruling BJP elites on how to balance India’s Act East and Look West policies. Unlike other major or emerging powers, including Russia, China, South Africa, Turkey, Iran, or any other European power, India has yet to engage in active and visible people-to-people, cultural diplomacy in the Middle East. India’s soft power has not yet crossed beyond the popularity of Bollywood, which has been seriously challenged by the highly competitive Turkish and Egyptian film industries.

Third, domestic distractions have started taking a toll on India’s perception of Arab social media. The government, too, sends corrective messages too late to control the damage. In one instance, UAE officials expressed their angst over the controversial tweet of a BJP member of parliament depicting Arab women in a poor light. Anti-Arab and anti-Palestine sentiment, which some supporters of Modi expressed on social media during conflict between Palestine and Israel, actually weakens India’s Palestine policy perception.

Indian experts have often complained that India lacks a strategic vision and the strategic thinking of a great power and that India is easily distracted by periods of transactionalism, ambiguity, and reluctance. Wanting to change the status quo of India’s reluctant foreign policy, the Modi government has had more plain talks with its Arab counterparts than any other previous government. India had attended important sessions at the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to start a chapter beyond the long-held Pakistan-prism. In these efforts, discussions on security, defence, and counterterrorism have appeared more frequently and prominently alongside discussions of trade, investment, diaspora, and energy.

One of the successes of the Modi government is overcoming the sensitive touchstone of India-Israel relations. Given the right-wing groups’ long history of good relations with Israel, sections of Arab states saw the election of the Hindu nationalist government as an opportunity and medium to initiate dialogue between Israel and the Arab states. India might have already played a role in the recent normalisation of relations between the UAE, Bahrain, and Oman. If true, the next step should be the formation of a regional cooperation group in which India, Israel, and the Gulf countries may have greater cooperation on a range of mutual concerns, including maritime security. External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar has carefully included the Gulf region in India’s Indo-Pacific vision asserting that India now looks to the region with “fresher and clearer eyes.”

Omair Anas is PhD from Centre for West Asian Studies Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and Assistant Professor of International Relations at Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University, Turkey. @omairanas

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.